By Calvin Palmer
The unifying role of sport is the theme of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman in the role of South Africa’s president, Nelson Mandela.
The story tells of Mandela’s bid to unite a country after the decades of Apartheid kept blacks and coloreds apart from the white population.
In any regime change, what went before is usually discredited and swept away by the new.
For South Africa, its rugby team – the Springboks – was a national icon revered by the whites and came to typify the years of Apartheid. Blacks in the country would support the opposing team rather than the Springboks because what the team represented.
On coming to power, Mandela was quick to realize the need of uniting the country into a cohesive entity that would enable it to prosper, thus allowing the social wrongs to be righted.
He was wise enough to know that getting rid of the Springboks, as his party wished to do, would plunge the country into chaos. The whites made up the bulk of the army and police force, as well as controlling the economy.
Mandela could hold the moral high ground with his party. He had been imprisoned for 30 years and forced to do hard labor. Many men would seek revenge on their captors but Mandela knew the power of kindness and how doing the unexpected can sometimes break down barriers.
Cynics may say that the South African rugby team, particularly its captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), was manipulated by a politician for his own ends. But it is cynics who often poison the well of humankind.
Eastwood sees people as people; black, white, brown or yellow are all part of a humanity that shares fundamental values. The differences between people are far outweighed by the common experiences and personal aspirations they share.
Invictus builds on his last film Gran Torino, which exposed the moral bankruptcy of racism at the street level, and demonstrates how institutionalized racism is just as redundant as a philosophy and detrimental to the well being of a nation.
Where divisions exist, bridges have to be built and Mandela as a politician is astute enough to realize that the Springboks are part of the bridge that will lead to a united country.
As a leader of 42 million people, Mandela shares his vision with Pienaar the leader of 15 men on the rugby field and Pienaar responds. He wants success for his team by winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a success that will bring Mandela and the country an even greater and lasting victory.
The film succeeds on many levels, most notably with the match sequences. It is always difficult to bring the action of sporting contests to the big screen without them looking stage-managed. The action on the field in this film looks about as real as it can be, even including a look-alike of the All Blacks awesome Jonah Lomu. American audiences will look on aghast at the crunching tackles executed by players without shoulder pads and helmets.
And just like Helen Mirren in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) became Queen Elizabeth II, so Freeman becomes Nelson Mandela. In both instances the likenesses are uncanny.
But whereas The Queen stuck to the facts, Invictus suffers from a Hollywood version of events, according to The Daily Telegraph. But as the old saying goes, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” And Invictus is without a doubt a good story.
When the Oscar nominations are announced in a few months, it will come as no surprise to see Invictus among the contenders for the Best Film award, as well as competing in several of the individual categories.
Invictus takes its title from a 19th century poem by William Ernest Henley whose words gave Mandela inspiration to endure the hardship of his time in prison. The title means “unconquered” in Latin. The last stanza reads:
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.
A memorable line from the film comes from one of Mandela’s white security guards discussing the merits of rugby with a black colleague whose choice of sport is soccer, as was the case with most of South Africa’s black population.
The white security guard explains: “Soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, while rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”
Eastwood demonstrates with Invictus that we all have the capacity to be gentlemen if given the chance and banish hatred from our hearts.
Invictus rated PG-13, 134 mins.