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Invictus

a film review by Heather Craig

What do sports and politics have in common? The uncompromising zeal of their followers? The camaraderie people feel when they root for the same side? The unity of a common goal and a common rival? Invictus is the story of the channeling of these strong feelings by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first elected black president, in his efforts to unify his nation using the South African rugby team.

The movie begins with Mandela’s taking the office of president in 1994, immediately after the end of apartheid. He is already 72 years old when the movie begins. A white boys’ soccer team and their coach watch as the procession of cars drives by and the white coach instructs his boys to remember this as “the day our country went to the dogs.”
 
The mood is mixed as he arrives at the parliament buildings. White employees are packing their things as black new employees are entering. Mandela calls a staff meeting and tells the people packing boxes that they are needed and will not be fired, only to leave if they feel unable to work with the changes occurring. This startles both sides, but is a sign of things to come.  When Mandela’s all black security force requests more help, he sends them several white security men who used to work for Mandela’s predecessor. Neither the black nor the white security force is pleased, and their attempts to work together, slowly learning to trust each other professionally, is a large side-plot of the movie. Tony Kgoroge plays head of security Jason Tshabalala as a conscientious man, trained to see possible dangers anywhere, who likes Mandela and is frustrated by him at the same time. There is a great scene in which the white security men attempt to teach their black counterparts to play rugby.

Nelson Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman. He inhabits the role with an easy affability and genuine friendliness that by all accounts is true to Mandela. Further, he has the Mandela grin and the cadence of speech. It is a good portrayal. However, we see very little here to hint at how a man jailed for 27 years is able to actively practice forgiveness of those who put him there, to suggest why he has no visible resentment for any white people at all, and in fact treats all people the same. He mentions studying his jailers and learning their language, but his universal kindness is obviously much more than a political ploy : it is just who this man is.

This is no bio-pic. We learn very little about Mandela’s private life at all. His famous second wife, Winnie, is never mentioned by name. A scene with his daughter and children and who may be his grandchildren is so unexplained that I’m not entirely sure that is who they were. His time with the African National Congress and his subsequent life imprisonment are barely mentioned. In fact, one fault of the movie is that it assumes a greater familiarity with his story than may exist in its viewers.

Mandela sees the 1995 Rugby World Cup a perfect opportunity to showcase his country’s new rainbow outlook and political stability as it is the host country. However, the South African rugby team, the Springboks, have not been doing well in competition and their world cup chances are not projected as very good. Not to mention that the average black South African routinely roots against the Springboks, who have only one black player, Chester, and are seen as a symbol of white oppression.

To change the view of the Springboks and unite South Africa behind the team, Mandela enlists the Springbok team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, very blond and with an able Afrikaaner accent). Pienaar is surprised by Mandela’s interest in rugby but impressed by the man’s kindness. He embarks on a public relations campaign and tells his teammates that they are now more than just a rugby team and they as well get used to it. One of my favorite moments in the film is the disgruntled team falling silent as they are bussed through a slum area to stop where a group of black children are waiting for their rugby clinic. As the team debusses, the team watches with amusement as the children swarm Chester, ignoring all the other players.

Pienaar is an interesting character, with his racist father, his clear admiration for Mandela, and his leadership of a team which at first does not want to do any more than it absolutely must. He tries to lead by example, to train harder, to show more enthusiasm, and to never complain. His own evolution of feeling is shown in the changing of his attitude toward his family’s black maid, who asks him to have Mandela do something about the cost of bus fare.

The story here couldn’t be more singleminded. We learn almost nothing about the rest of Mandela’s first year in office beyond his attempts to get other nations to renew investing in South Africa. We only see his focus, a calculated gamble, on giving what he hopes to be a rainbow nation a common reason to cheer.

The film is directed by Clint Eastwood, who worked with Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. His race relations message alternates between being subtle and clubbing one over the head. We don’t really need a loud song about being color-blind playing in the background as Mandela wishes the Springboks luck (after laboriously memorizing which face goes with which name) the day before the World Cup. However, Eastwood does ably build tension in a game whose outcome is well known, making it somehow a nailbiter. The “big game” finish groups it with other sports movies, but Hoosiers this is not. Sure, rugby is definitely spotlighted here (a game I do not understand as much as I thought I did prior to seeing this movie), and the players are important, rootable characters, but this is Mandela’s movie, never doubt.

The word Invictus is Latin for “unconquered” and is also the title of a William Ernest Henley poem which inspired Mandela. Its most famous lines are:

I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.

 

 

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