Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor? Venerable New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael posed this question back in April of 1987, in response to Morgan Freeman’s fascinating portrayal of a pimp in Street Smart.
It was a funny query at the time because Freeman hadn’t become the Morgan Freeman of the present; he wasn’t the authoritarian voice of God in documentaries or the very embodiment of the Almighty we’ve embraced in the comedic series (choosing between Freeman and George Burns, well, there’s not much of a choice there) or the black president in times of crisis before we actually elected a black president during a massive crisis. No, back then, to young viewers like myself, he was Easy Reader from The Electric Company, and he was already an actor of advancing age, so how was he ever going to present proof to back up Kael’s question?
Yet there he was, as the pimp Fast Black, which would earn him an Academy Award nomination. He would garner another just two years later for his work with Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Another nomination would come in Shawshank Redemption before he would win for his supporting role in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. And in between those golden and near-golden performances, he would, as previously mentioned, give voice to gods and all manner of men with quiet authority and sometimes even evil intent.
It is intriguing too that he has come to be associated with Eastwood, another figure bearing certain expectations.
Both in front and behind the camera, Eastwood is the epitome of efficient discipline, a monkish adherence to a minimalist code, and sometimes I believe we forget that he has always been this way. It is to easy to assume that it is simply age that has made him this way, worn away the excess from the bedrock.
That was Eastwood’s way all along. And, to an extent, it is Freeman’s philosophy, too. He exudes charm and can call on fast flash in a whim, but there is nothing actorly or affected in his expression because he is these things, and he presents them to us in those moments when character demands it.
The natural lack of nonsense is what Freeman and Eastwood bring to Invictus, which could mistakenly be considered the story of Nelson Mandela’s first days as president of South Africa. It’s not that story at all. In typical Eastwood fashion, he has produced and directed something more basic and elemental than that because Invictus is nothing more than a bare recounting of a country and its first inspired steps toward unification.
The formerly long-imprisoned Mandela (Freeman) assumes control through democratic election and dedicates himself to refashioning the country as the best reflection of what the country should always have been. And sports — in this case rugby — proves to be the most finely tuned instrument at his disposal.
The sport and its ability to draw the people in is the focus, more than Mandela or the need to renounce a horrible past or fears of a dark future. It is the game and the will that the game inspires, and Eastwood wisely applies Freeman’s quiet dignity and his uncanny interpretation of Mandela as a complement to the struggles both on the field and, symbolically, in the hearts of the citizens of this divided country.
The two receive able assistance in this endeavor from Matt Damon who, as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team, is an actor cut from the same cloth. There is always a high degree of intelligence in his work because he is an intelligent man, but he never puts on a show for its own sake. One day, possibly even very soon, someone might ponder his greatness.
Sometimes the great ones understand that it’s up to us to recognize the greatness within ourselves. Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)