Invictus

Starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Leleti Khumalo, and Scott Eastwood. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Rated PG (infrequent coarse language). 133 mins.

 Based on John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation”, this movie focuses on Nelson Mandela’s involvement in the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa. The film depicts the unifying effect of the rugby game on a divided people and carries a stirring message. Morgan Freeman plays the part of Nelson Mandela, who brought leadership to his nation, and Matt Damon is the sporting captain, Francois Pienaar, who led his rugby team to an unexpected victory that captured the spirit of a nation. In the film, Clint Eastwood brings a sure touch to deliver a true story with great emotional impact, and he effectively mixes culture with history, and deep emotional drama.

Nelson Mandela was released from a Robben Island prison in 1990, after 27 years behind bars in a tiny cell, where he dedicated himself to bringing an end to apartheid and to bringing the vote to South Africa's black majority population.  Taking office as the President of South Africa in 1994, his chief goal in life was to “balance black aspirations with white fears”. Facing the prospect of civil war, he used the country’s rugby union team, the “Springboks”, to bring black and white South Africans together. The movie takes its title “Invictus” (meaning “unconquered”) from an 1875 poem by a British poet, William Henley, who inspired Mandela in prison to be invincible. Henley’s poetry, as captured also by his lines, “My head is bloody but unbowed”, is scripted very effectively into the film.

In the film, Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey, and Pienaar wearing the same, stand together on the football field, after a tense final game in which the Springboks snatched victory against the odds, before a huge crowd of fans, both black and white.  Apartheid was technically over at the time of the game, but inspirational leadership was required to bring black Africans and white Afrikaners together, and that was provided by Mandela. He saw the World Cup as a way of achieving an almost impossible rapprochement across the races. The Springboks was a team viewed widely as representing white supremacy and apartheid repression, but Mandela used it riskily to arouse the passions and commitment of black and white Africans who both ultimately wanted their country’s team to win. He used the Springboks brilliantly to carry his country forward from divisiveness toward healing and forgiveness.

The movie has some minor historical inaccuracies, but it has moments of great emotion, particularly the final scenes, and the early ones that show the entrenched divisions of racial conflict, and the reluctant resolve of those caught up in their inner turmoil to pull together. Coached by an actual member of the Springboks (the only black person in the team at the time), Matt Damon plays the role of team captain in perfect pitch, and Morgan Freeman captures Nelson Mandela with only minor blemishes. Nelson Mandela was blessed with genuine charisma, and Freeman captures that in his own way.

The film overlooks what continues to fuel South Africa’s racial divide, and it is ironic that Eastwood, who forged his reputation as an award winning director with quality movies that glorified brutal force, vengeance and retribution, now directs a film that aims to show how wrong revenge is, and the redemptory power that lies in the acceptance of others. It is passion for football which carries the film’s messages of reconciliation, and it is genuinely moving to see blacks and whites during the final game cheering and chanting together as one.

Like other movies directed by Eastwood, this film explores the nature of male heroism. The film is about politics and sport, and sport almost wins, the film’s emotional moments scattering themselves in the movie’s final homage to the game of rugby. Despite the ultimate triumph of masculinity, carried by the films credits, the movie genuinely inspires. Mandela was an agent of profound change, and he shaped history, and it is incredible that his daring vision actually worked. The film powerfully illustrates the risk, and the magnitude, of Mandela’s historic achievement. 

Warner Bros. Out January 21, 2010

 

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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