Poetry, muses Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) in a reflective moment in Invictus, consists only of words, yet it can inspire perseverance and greatness beyond our own expectations of ourselves. Sport, similarly, consists of oversized, overpaid athletes pounding one another in simulated combat, but it's also a form of poetry. Recounting an especially poetic sporting event, the 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand, Clint Eastwood, in the unassuming manner in which he took on the same theme in Flags of Our Fathers, analyzes how well-intended and canny politicians can transform such symbolic expressions into realities.
|Invictus | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing The Enemy by John Carlin | with Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, and Patrick Lyster | Warner Bros. | 133 minutes|
First of all, kudos to Eastwood for focusing his story about South Africa and the impact of apartheid on a black character — Mandela as played by Freeman in one of his most nuanced performances. Previous films on the subject have relied on a white proxy protagonist to engage a presumably white audience. The token white guy in this case would have been François Pienaar (as played by Matt Damon, stolid and functional as a doorknob), the captain of South Africa's national rugby side, the Springboks.
But Pienaar is a beleaguered captain — not only has his team been playing poorly in the run-up to the 1995 World Cup (which South Africa will host), it's in the doghouse following the change in regimes. Rugby has always been the sport of the white Afrikaner minority, and the Springboks have been their team. So blacks (whose game is soccer — a situation illuminated with visual wit and eloquence in Eastwood's masterful opening crane shot) see the Springboks as a symbol of oppression. Mandela himself, along with his fellow inmates during the 27 years he was imprisoned as a terrorist, always rooted for their opponents.
Now it's 1995, Mandela's African National Congress is in power, and it wants to rename the Springboks and change their colors. Mandela, however, stands up for this symbol of his former oppressors. When he hears that the World Cup final in Cape Town will be watched by a billion people worldwide, his eyes light up: he's a politician who knows the value of a photo op. But he's also a wise soul toughened into compassion by decades in a tiny cell. He realizes that reconciliation and forgiveness work better than revenge. So does Eastwood, who, contrary to his vigilante image, has spent his filmmaking career examining this dichotomy.
Invictus might not be his most inventive movie, but it is one of his shrewdest — Mandela's tightrope walk between satisfying his supporters and unifying the country is rendered with particular subtlety. And it is one of Eastwood's most moving. True, the schmaltz is there in the sequence in which Pienaar visits Mandela's cell on Robben Island and sees ghostly images of the future president out in the yard doing hard labor while Freeman intones the title Victorian poem by William Ernest Henley ("I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul"). Likewise, the moment when white cops on patrol outside the stadium bond with a black newsboy after the Springboks score borders on kitsch.
But even those unacquainted with rugby will be moved by the match itself, the sweat and blood and groans of the scrums and the torturous progress to an exhausting overtime victory. Something to keep in mind when we ponder the progress of our own first black president.