Sunday, December 13, 2009
INVICTUS....CAN YOU PLAY NELSON MANDELA...MORGAN FREEMAN JUST DID
By Bill Keller
Morgan Freeman has been cast as God - twice - so he evidently has no trouble projecting moral authority. The challenge of portraying Nelson Mandela, then, was not the size of the halo, but knowing the performance would be measured against the real, familiar Mandela, and his myth. "If we can say any part of acting is hard, then playing someone who is living and everybody knows would be the hardest," Freeman said in a phone interview.
The role has defeated actors as varied as Danny Glover (the 1987 TV film "Mandela"), Sidney Poitier ("Mandela and de Klerk," 1997, also for TV) and Dennis Haysbert ("Goodbye Bafana," 2007), in vehicles that were reverential and mostly forgettable.
But as someone who studied Mandela over the course of three years while he replaced an apartheid regime with a genuine democracy, I found Freeman's performance in the film "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood, uncanny - less an impersonation than an incarnation.
He gets the rumble and halting rhythm of Mandela's speech, the erect posture and stiff gait. There is a striking physical resemblance, enhanced by the fact that Freeman, 72, is just a few years younger than Mandela was in the period the film covers. More important, Freeman conveys the manipulative charm, the serene confidence, the force of purpose, the hint of mischief and the lonely regret that made Mandela one of the most fascinating political figures of his time.
The story of "Invictus," drawn from John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation," begins with the newly inaugurated president of post-apartheid South Africa looking for ways to enlist his fearful white minority - with its talent, wealth, resentment and capacity for insurrection - in the business of governing a democracy. His inspired stratagem is to embrace the Springboks national rugby team, the darlings of the formerly ruling Afrikaners and, for most non-white South Africans, a symbol of brutal and humiliating repression.
The new president sets the team's captain (Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon) the improbable goal of winning the World Cup; the tournament is to be held in South Africa in a year, and the Springboks are given little chance. Mandela sets himself the considerably more improbable goal of uniting country behind the team.
So loathed were the Springboks that those few blacks who showed up for matches rooted loudly for the other side. So the rugby campaign was one of Mandela's boldest strokes of statecraft, no less impressive for the fact that the euphoria he achieved could barely begin to extinguish three centuries of racial antagonism.
Freeman's occupational association with South Africa began with a role in the 1992 film "The Power of One," the pious tale of a white boy coming to enlightenment in apartheid South Africa. Soon thereafter Freeman made his directing debut with a more tough-minded film, "Bopha!," the story of a conflicted black South African cop, played by Glover. (Lori McCreary, who was a producer on that film and "Invictus," said she tried to lure Freeman for the lead part in "Bopha!," but was told he "doesn't do accents.")
According to Freeman, his mission to portray Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from the subject himself. At a news conference to promote the publication of his 1994 memoir, "Long Walk to Freedom," someone asked Mandela who should play him in the movie.
"And he said he wanted me," Freeman recalled. "So it became. That was the whole sanction, right there."
The South African film producer Anant Singh, who bought the movie rights to "Long Walk," arranged for Mandela and Freeman to meet.
"I told him that if I was going to play him, I was going to have to have access to him," the actor said. "That I would have to hold his hand and watch him up close and personal."
As president Mandela could be surprisingly approachable - he once allowed me, the New York Times correspondent in South Africa at the time, to shadow him during a day of his presidency, something I can scarcely imagine an American president allowing. But since stepping down in 1999, and especially since his memory began to fail him, he has become more reclusive, protected by a staff that worries he might embarrass himself. But he obliged Freeman.
"Whenever we've been in proximity in one city or another, I have had access to him," the actor said. Their encounters ranged from tea at Mandela's home in Johannesburg to a charity fundraiser in Monaco. But through multiple screenplays, Mandela's sprawling memoir proved too unwieldy for a film, and Freeman abandoned the project.
"There's just too much to whittle down to movie size," Freeman said.
Then, in 2006, Carlin, a British journalist who had covered Mandela in the 1990s, was in Mississippi to write an article on poverty in the American South for El Pais. He ended up in the Clarksdale living room of Freeman's business partner. When the host went to the kitchen for a bottle of wine, Carlin recalls, he turned to Freeman.
"This is your lucky day," he said. "I have a movie for you."
"Oh, really," Freeman replied. "What's it about?"
"It's based on a book I am writing about an event that distills the essence of Mandela's genius, and the essence of the South African miracle."
"Oh," Freeman replied, "you mean the rugby game?"
Carlin's proposal for his book had already been circulating in Hollywood, and it had caught Freeman's eye.
Freeman sought Mandela's blessing, bought the rights and persuaded Eastwood to direct. (Their two previous collaborations, "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby," both won best picture Oscars.) They hired Peckham, a South African emigre, to write the script.
Freeman insists that if the portrayal transcends impersonation, that is largely Peckham's doing.
As an actor, "you're looking for the physical: how he stands, how he walks, how he talks," he said. "Nuances he has in terms of tics or movements. Things that sort of define him. The inner life has to come off the page. Whatever he's thinking, I don't know. You have a script, and you stick to that script, and the script is going to inform you of everything."
Peckham's main difficulty in writing a script, he found, was to do justice to such a familiar and beloved figure without tipping into idolatry.
"It was extremely difficult, because in the period I write about he was in many respects at his most saintly - leading the country the way he did," Peckham said. The danger of hagiography "was something we all knew was an issue and that I struggled with every day while I was writing it. With the additional complication that we didn't want to be offensive and disrespectful either. It's easy enough to kind of show someone's feet of clay if you're prepared to be brutal about it, but it's not so easy when you want to be respectful without hero-worshiping."
The notion they settled on to humanise the hero was that, while Mandela was making a nation he was neglecting his own family. It is certainly true that Mandela's marriage to the cause contributed to his two divorces and his estrangement from some of his children. In the movie there is a scene of Mandela, who could always summon the words to move a crowd, failing to connect with his resentful grown daughter, Zinzi.
"Knowing what I know of Madiba personally," Freeman said, using Mandela's clan name, "his real concern is not for what he did, but more for what he didn't do. He had family obligations that he couldn't live up to, one, because he was in prison, and they just wouldn't allow it, and he had so many other obligations. The father of the nation is usually less than the father of his family."
South Africans listening to Freeman's rendering may agree that he "doesn't do accents." (He says "Spring-BAHK" where Mandela would say "Spring-BOHK.") But Mandela's distinctive voice is less about accent than cadence, and Freeman gets that precisely right.
Carlin, who covered Mandela in his political prime and spent many hours with him for the rugby book, said Freeman "channels Mandela beautifully."
Most important, Carlin said, Freeman, abetted by the screenwriter, "impressively conveys the giant solitude of Mandela."
Though an admirer of Freeman, Carlin has seen Mandela gotten wrong often enough that he braced himself for disappointment. After attending a screening in Paris last month, he sent an ecstatic e-mail message: "They didn't screw it up!" he wrote. "WHAT a relief!"
For me, the realisation that Freeman had nailed it came as the film ended. Alongside the closing credits came still photos of the actual rugby match, and the actual Mandela. And for a second I wondered, "Who is that imposter?"