Nelson Mandela, in his first term as President of South Africa, initiates a unique venture to unite the Apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby... Read allNelson Mandela, in his first term as President of South Africa, initiates a unique venture to unite the Apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.Nelson Mandela, in his first term as President of South Africa, initiates a unique venture to unite the Apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Mandela, played with effortless dignity by Morgan Freeman, is fresh out of prison and desperate for a way to rebuild his country, which has been torn asunder by the heinous policies of apartheid. Mandela comes to believe that the most sensible way for this to be accomplished is not by making speeches in faraway lands but to give his countrymen something they can all cheer about. His solution is to galvanize the national rugby team, which to date had not been a particularly successful club and had been given very little chance to compete on an international stage like the World Cup. Mandela pins all of his political hopes on the club’s chances; should they fail, he will appear to have behaved frivolously in paying so much attention to a sport, and the black people and the white people would be even farther apart.
The odds were decidedly against the Springboks of South Africa. The team was a certified failure, so much so that the coach had just been axed. Captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is frustrated. Times are so bad in South Africa that during the team’s matches, the white audience members cheer for South Africa – but the black audience members cheer for the opposition, because the team itself is almost entirely white, with only one black player. Indeed, after Mandela’s election as president, South African groups vote overwhelmingly to drop the traditional rugby nickname “Springboks” as a way to shed themselves of all reminders of the apartheid era. Mandela realizes that such a action would instead drive a further wedge between the two races, so he countermands the local votes and maintains the nickname and the traditional green-and-gold uniforms.
Sports movies in general are expected to follow a particular formula, more so than other films. That is, if we’re met with a ragtag band of sandlot players, we expect them to somehow persevere by the end of the movie. This is one of the few genres in which such predictability is a major plus. Sports movies are meant to manipulate you shamelessly, and you’re a willing, permissive participant. Invictus certainly plucks all the heartstrings it can, but the bonus is that these events actually happened. This isn’t The Mighty Ducks beating the bad guys or Henry Rowengartner’s Cubs winning the World Series, this is a real-life rugby team gaining strength, wisdom, and inspiration from their newly elected president to triumph over steep odds.
That said, this is less a movie about winning the championship and more about unification. Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years, had steep odds of his own to contend with. Although democratically elected, there were still plenty of people throughout the country who really didn’t trust their new leader at all and were convinced that he would lead them all to ruin. (Sounds a little familiar, and I assume that the timing was intentional on the part of Eastwood.) Mandela had to unite everyone, beginning with his own staff, in order for the country to move forward and have a seat at the proverbial international table.
Because of this grand vision, Mandela takes a personal interest in the fortunes of the rugby team, even to the point of rescheduling events so that he can watch the matches either in person or at least on television. He is careful not to intrude too much in the training and management of the team (particularly Pienaar).
Now, granted, this is an American movie made for American audiences, so there are some concessions. For one thing, the rules of rugby have to be mentioned at least once (and not enough, as far as I was concerned); for another, the focus isn’t just on the political machinations and aspirations of Mandela but rather on how the team itself reacts to its new success and the attempts by its captain to inspire them to ever-greater heights. What this slight sleight of hand does is present the idea of postpartheid attitudes in the framework of an athletic event, something American audiences can always care about, no matter the sport. Excellent decision by the director, I think, because the overall message is enhanced, rather than obscured, by the experiences of the Springboks.
Even with the political subtext, and even among sports movies (which themselves are usually very evocative), this is a highly emotional film. The rugby scenes are so well done, so fantastic to watch, that nonfans like me – who don’t know a thing about rugby – can’t help but let down their steely resolve and cynicism. This is a happy, optimistic movie, but it’s not a funny movie. There was hardly a dry eye in the theater today, thanks to the powerful rugby scenes, and I have to admit I haven’t teared up that much at any movie in a long, long time. Eastwood’s strong direction pushes the audience into the right direction, but we go willingly and happily. Freeman is commanding in the role he was always meant to play (Mandela himself wanted Freeman to portray him), and even Damon is excellent as the South African rugby captain. This is a true winner in all aspects of film.
- Dec 12, 2009