In 1994, the long-standing South African Apartheid had dissolved; the country held its first multi-racial elections and Nelson Mandela became the first black African president of the nation. Knowing full well the transition of power would cause bitterness and distrust among the country’s affluent and powerful Caucasian minority, Mandela wisely realized that the two cultures must find common ground in order for the shattered country to unite. One unlikely way he chose to achieve this goal was to vocally and fervently support the country’s flagging rugby team. Lead by team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the South African “Springbok” (antelopes) rugby team was so hated by the native African population, the South African sports authority tried to change the team name and flag after Nelson’s inauguration. Nelson convinced the voting parties not to do so in an effort to turn past symbols of hate into future symbols of hope. Mandela’s personal interest in the team and his unwavering fandom lead to the underdog Springbok team winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the hearts of all South Africans.
I feared a heavy-handed political message would overshadow the many positive and real effects Nelson Mandela’s term had on the strife-torn country of South Africa. Honestly, I never trusted Clint Eastwood as a director to thoughtfully tell this story. The first hour confirmed some of those fears. “Invictus” begins as a guilt-ridden film that would easily turn off a great deal of uninterested viewers. Much like the Southern Reconstruction, South Africa faced a grim cultural and economic future. 30 minutes in, I wondered how the heck could “Dirty Harry” get me interested in the real-life story without preaching partisan politics in either direction. Surprisingly, he found a unique way to tell it without resorting to the recent Hollywood missteps of selling politics to the audience. I’m pleased to inform that “Invictus” is at heart, a feel-good sports film.
Instead of focusing on the more obvious aspects of Mandela’s tragedies, rise to power and triumphs, novelist John Carlin and screenwriter Anthony Peckham chose some unique aspects in which to convey the story. The primary characters involve Mandela’s native African security team who must begrudgingly allow the ex-Apartheid Secret Service into their ranks by decree from their optimistic and forgiving leader. Both sides openly express their mutual hate of each other despite the fact that they will never let their overriding sense of duty interfere with the protection of their leader.
Another, smaller storyline includes an orphan; a native African boy who at first refuses a Springbok jersey as a handout for fear of reprisals from his peers. Soon the boy changes his mind after the Springbok, at the request of Mandela, conduct a rugby clinic in his local ghetto, endearing him to the sport.
The third, most prominent storyline includes the Springbok captain, Pienaar, who personally agrees with Mandela’s “lead by example” mantra. Inspired by the wise words of his new president, Pienaar speaks softly – but through actions – likewise inspires his mostly all-white team to follow suit. Mandela, in turn, impresses the team by wearing their uniform, team insignia and greeting them all by their individual names during his frequent visits. An avid rugby enthusiast and former anti-fan of the nearly all-white Springbok, Mandela shocks the entire nation by publicly expressing his unwavering support for the team and investing his personal hopes for the country into this team’s success. A risky gamble, to be sure… yet it paid off in such a way that exceeded anyone’s expectations, possibly even the expectations of the man who initiated the entire phenomenon.
After the one-two punch of “The Blind Side” and “Precious”, I’m quite welcoming to 2009 films that champion racial equality and hope in the face of adversity. Fortunately, I can add “Invictus” to this list. The title of the film refers to a famous William Earnest Henley poem that Mandela found inspirational during his 27 year incarceration. He eventually gifts the poem to Pienaar in the form of a letter, but Freeman’s voice does the piece the greatest justice by speaking it aloud during two moving scenes in the film. Because of this film and the poem, I’ll never forget the phrase, “I am the captain of my soul.”
Partisan, heavy-handed messages aside, “Invictus” will please even cynical crowds. It’s clearly Oscar-bait, has clumsy pacing in the first half and a few very inappropriate song choices during key scenes (if that terrible pop-wannabe-rock song “Colorblind” gets an Oscar nomination, I’ll boycott the category).
I’m blaming all of the film’s shortcomings on director Eastwood, because the entire cast gave nothing but their absolute best. Plus, the sporting portions of the film played out in such a way that the director of photography and the editor should collect most of the kudos for the end result. Sorry, Clint. I know your Oscar batting average behind the lens is high… I just don’t fancy your style and I don’t think your skill is refined enough for the stories you tackle. I’ve come to loathe “Changeling”, I found “Mystic River” painfully tedious and I still think much of “Grand Torino” was an unintentional comedy (*cocking gun* “Get off of my lawn!”). You’ve had a few gems but lest we forget “Space Cowboys”. Please, finish out your career as an actor in at least one last Spaghetti Western.
As for Freeman, playing Nelson Mandela was a no-brainer. His performance seemed so squarely on the nose, I didn’t detect a hint of effort from the legendary icon. No other actor could have done it better, and while I’ll concede Freeman is the quintessential mentor and authority figure in the cinematic world, I much prefer his more understated roles. I hope one day he’ll either go back to playing those dignified, down-on-his-luck characters, or go against type and play the scariest villain ever to grace the silver screen. How else can he top himself after playing Nelson Mandela?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars