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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this fact-based Clint Eastwood-directed drama (which stars Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman) is an uplifting movie that's age appropriate for older tweens and young teens -- the PG-13 rating is primarily for language (one use of "f--king" and a couple of "s--t"s are the worst of it). Because of its narrow focus -- the movie follows President Nelson Mandela's decision to rally support behind South Africa's nearly all-white national rugby team -- there's little violence aside from an early riot (which does show a dead boy) and the rugby itself, which is quite physically aggressive). And Damon's character kisses his wife, but there's nothing more risque than that. Ultimately the movie is both educational and inspiring, providing an excellent lesson about post-apartheid South Africa, national unity, compassion, and the universality of sports.
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What's the story?
INVICTUS is Clint Eastwood's chronicle of how newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) decided to champion national rugby, despite the fact that the nearly all-Afrikaans team was considered a bastion of apartheid. Although most South African blacks hated the Springbok team, Mandela befriends captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and encourages him to win, so South Africans -- white and black -- will have something positive to rally around together. As the rugby team begins to succeed, Mandela lobbies to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, and the country does indeed bond over the sport.
Is it any good?
Freeman is a revelation as Mandela. Inspirational sports movies have a tendency to be full of overwrought dialogue and sappy, swelling music accompanying the athletic competition. Eastwood's genius is that even though there's enough of both here (including dramatic recitations of the titular poem, which means "unconquered"), the film never feels bogged down by sentimentality. It's difficult to imagine any other actor playing the iconic leader, and Freeman doesn't disappoint. With every nod, walk, and smile, Freeman fully transforms into the Nobel Peace Prize winner -- his lovingly executed performance is reason enough to see this historically accurate film. Damon packed on muscle to play the barrel-chested Francois, although he couldn't do anything to approach the real Pienaar's considerable height. Most American audiences won't know whether Damon nailed the South African accent, but at least it stays consistent, as do his rugby moves, for which Damon trained extensively.
There's not much scene-stealing from Damon; he seems content to let Freeman and the game of rugby set the tone. One particularly memorable scene shows how the players react to Francois handing out the words to the new South African anthem (one of them calls it a "terrorist song," and several crumple up the paper). And despite the movie's serious themes, there's a surprising amount of humor, usually in the form of Mandela's integrated personal security force -- the black guards don't even know how to follow rugby: "What just happened?" one asks, "They scored!" says a white guard. The black and white guards are wary of each other at first, but by the end of the movie, they're all playing rugby and picking on each other. No doubt it took more than rugby to overcome the deep fissures caused by apartheid in South Africa (if they've been overcome at all), but in this movie, love of rugby and of a new nation go beautifully hand in hand.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's themes of national unity and desegregation. Why does Mandela decide to save the rugby team? What does the rugby team represent to black South Africans at the beginning of the film, and how does that change throughout the movie?
What do Pienaar's rugby teammates mean when they that say the new national anthem is a "terrorist song"? What does the movie teach viewers about the history of South Africa?
The poem "Invictus" is referenced and read more than once in the movie. What do you think the poem means, and why does Mandela give it to Pienaar?
- In theaters: December 11, 2009
- On DVD or streaming: May 18, 2010
- Cast: Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Tony Kgoroge
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Integrity
- Run time: 133 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: brief strong language
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
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