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All together now: (l-r) Freeman and Damon in Invictus.

More Than a Game

By Laura Leon


Directed by Clint Eastwood


During South Africa’s long period of apartheid, it was sort of a national joke that the black population cheered vociferously for any rugby team that challenged the native Springboks, who were seen as the epitome of the racial injustice and hatred that had plagued the land. While imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela himself rooted for the away team. And so, it was something of a shock to his supporters when, soon after he took office, President Mandela convinced the South African Sports Commission to retain the Springboks and, what’s more, began a cagey campaign to use the team as the vehicle by which white and black South Africans could unite in pride and ownership.

Viewers of ESPN will no doubt recognize this story, which was memorialized by John Carlin in his excellent work Playing With the Enemy, as that station famously honored this story (not the book) as the best in history. The ultimate glory for the Springboks was the clinching of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, made all the sweeter by the fact that millions of their countrymen cheered them on, bearing the fruit of Mandela’s audacious dream. Clint Eastwood may seem an unlikely director to choose this as his latest picture, but in a way, there’s a lot of sense in it. Invictus, named for a poem by William Ernest Henley that gave moral strength to Mandela in his darkest hours, is pure old-fashioned Hollywood, a David vs. Goliath tale with some civics lessons thrown in for good measure.

The movie begins in 1990, with a motorcade bearing the newly released Mandela (Morgan Freeman) from Robben Island. The almost-entirely white Springboks, practicing on lush greens, pause to observe, as do the ragged black kids, playing rugby on dirt and concrete across the street. While the children raise their voices in a joyful cacophony of “Mandela! Mandela!” the Springboks coach advises his team that this “terrorist” will drive all the whites into the sea. Fast forward a few years to Mandela’s first day in office, a shot that Eastwood makes almost mundane by showing his protagonist navigate the hallways of the presidential mansion while throngs of white clerical and administrative staff pack boxes and make ready for their anticipated termination. Mandela calls everybody to him, and informs them that if they cannot work for him, they are free to go, but implores them to think of their country, and to work with him. His security chief (Tony Kgorage) is aghast that his boss’ spirit of forgiveness and conciliation extends to having white security guards work alongside blacks.

Mandela stumbles upon the idea of using the Springboks as a symbol of “one team, one nation,” and to his staff’s astonishment, meets with the team’s captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), who is clearly overwhelmed by the president’s aura of leadership. Indeed, the best aspects of Invictus are those in which Mandela, with patience and wisdom born of long suffering, compels devotion and service from those who otherwise would doubt the course of his proposed actions. Freeman does his best not to make Mandela God, mostly by moments of sly humor, and scenes that remind us of his age and frail health. Still, his main role, literally and figuratively, is to serve as the great healer. Damon has the much easier role, except for the tricky Afrikaner accent, which he effectively nails. His François is not much more than a type, the solid team leader who works harder than everybody and tries to lead by example. We never learn much about him, other than his father initially mistrusts Mandela, and his girlfriend appreciates the fact that, as captain, he doesn’t have to share a room. But Damon humanizes the stereotype in such a way as to make us believe that, in the final, crucial game, he can, like Mandela, make that statement or gesture which makes others follow suit.

The movie is too long, bracketed by nearly 10 minutes of background history at one end and the “big game” at the other. The game itself is strangely anticlimactic, just shots of screaming fans waving South African flags, Mandela nervously watching the action and the sweaty, heaving scrums. In the end, I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Naked Gun, in which traditional enemies like Jews and Arabs and dogs and postal workers exchange hugs and kisses, which is unfortunate because it cheapens what must have been a truly amazing national moment. But overall, Invictus is a stirring work that is more about the nuances of power well utilized than it is about athletics. In this way, and in how it examines the role of leadership and the power of revenge, it fits snugly into the Eastwood pantheon.

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