On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela is released from prison after serving 27 years. In 1994 he becomes the first South African President to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. A huge job lies ahead of him as he must unite a divided population while healing the wounds of apartheid. Mandela senses the potential symbolic healing value of the South African Rugby team winning the 1995 World Cup championship to help unite a troubled nation.
After watching a rugby game, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) notices that the black audience is cheering for the English team instead of their own country’s Springboks. The South African team wears green and gold which are the old government colors. When a predominately black athletic group votes to change the name of the team and the colors, Mandela steps in and asks them to keep it the same. He calls on the Springbok team captain - Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) - to inspire him to help his team, which has been losing, to start working toward the goal of winning the World Cup.
Rugby is basically football without pads, forward passes, or time outs. It has traditionally been regarded as a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. Soccer, on the other hand, has become a gentleman's game played by hooligans. It’s a hard sport that requires full hard body contact with a vaguely American shaped football. The players try to stop each other for control of the ball and it includes forming huge piles of bodies to stop their opponent. Players are required to have speed, muscle and stamina. Director Clint Eastwood’s action shots of this little known sport bring the game to life. The cameras linger on the intensity of the players so that the audience is feeling every tackle and hard hit. If nothing else, it will spark an interest in rugby.
Based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by John Carlin, the film takes on a haloed image of Mandela as he tries to set to right the blight of his country. While Mandela is visiting the world trying to drum up monetary assistance, he’s keeping an eye on the progress of the rugby team. Morgan Freeman, who was allowed access to Mandela to help his performance, uncannily captures the physical nuances. You can’t help but feel the man’s greatness in what appears to be an impossible task of changing attitudes that are so firmly ingrained by years of prejudice by creating something that people can collectively support and feel pride in their country.
Eastwood brings great humanity to his movies and this one is very inspirational. However, there are a few missteps and at times it seems Mandela is just a little too saintly. There’s one scene where Mandela is flying in a helicopter to the player’s practice field to wish the team good luck and the soundtrack carries on with a song about being color blind that was way over the top, and then quickly fades. It was just out of place. Another instance is when a huge jet plane flies over the field that seemed scary and unnecessary. If it did actually happen, its insertion here didn’t progress the story.
Matt Damon with blond hair and a passable Afrikaner accent is slightly smaller than the real life Francois. But at least his accent is better than Leo Deception’s in Blood Diamond. However, in the scenes with Freeman and Damon you can just hear the American edge in their tones as compared to the local actors with real accents that are at times hard to understand.
This national fervor that sports teams provide is played out every four years with the Olympics. For example, the US winning Ice Hockey brought flags waving and tears flowing. In this case, rugby helped the South African people see beyond their class and color. For example, when a reporter asks Francois what it feels like to play for the 60,000 fans in the stands and he replies that he’s playing for the 4 million of his countrymen. Invictus is like an old-fashioned movie that was used to inspire people to buy war bonds and feel nationalism. At least it’s not a downer as some films that have been released lately during these holidays. (Review by Reesa Cruz-Hawkins)
"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
my head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
and yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
how charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.