REVIEW: Invictus [2009]

“The Rainbow Nation starts here”

Now here is a sports film I can get behind. I’ll say that a little trepidation set in when going to see Clint Eastwood’s new film Invictus as it was a hybrid of my two least favorite genres—the biopic and the sports uplifter. The biography aspect actually had me intrigued because I sadly knew very little about Nelson Mendela and his ascension from jailed terrorist to nation’s president, but I never thought I’d be receiving my education with a rugby field as backdrop. Even as I watched the trailers in the weeks leading up to the screening, I kept thinking it was about soccer. It is the World Cup. Rugby is definitely not soccer by any means, though. There is no grabbing your knees and writhing in pain before getting up the next play and scoring a goal. No, these men are bloody, broken, and full of heart as they scrum for the ball and play for their country. Yes it is an underdog tale, both for Mendela and the Springbok team alike, but it is also a display on how anything can resonate on a political scale as well as a human scale, giving enemies a common ground to unite.

It’s sad, but I think also relevant, to think about the Spike Lee controversy surrounding Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers along with the subject of this film. I’m sure Clint has been eying this tale for a while now, but it is interesting to think that only a few years ago, he had been wrongly lambasted by Lee for not having any African American characters in his WWII film. Of course it was on the cusp of Lee’s own work, Miracle at St. Anna, which used just that subject matter, so it isn’t hard to think the quarrel was to gain a little early press while filming. But here is Clint telling the tale of a black man in South Africa rising to enormous heights at the aftermath of Apartheid. It’s a story about the strength of will and character to bring a country together when all seemed lost. While his people had been shown no remorse or compassion, he is finally put into power to turn the tables and get revenge. Instead, however, he sees the opportunity that was given and understands that forgiveness is the road to take. If the former Afrikaners had anything they held dear, it was Springbok rugby, and while the black majority was ready to dismantle that heritage, Mendela saw a way to win the whites’ hearts. By getting behind something they loved and reaching the black population that despised them to join the wave, he was able to build the Rainbow Nation he so envisioned.

It really is hard to imagine how rugby could so invigorate a people to put petty issues aside and become one. That pub mentality of being amongst friends, cheering on your home colors with pride, really does rise above any other differences. Maybe it’s a fleeting truce, but sometimes it may be the thing necessary to open one’s eyes to what really matters. At the end of the day, no matter what color, no matter what language, the person next to you is a fellow human soul, one who has the same pride and emotions for his heritage and home as you. One of the greatest strengths with Invictus is how it shows the evolution of both blacks and whites, slowly breaking down the fear and anger that built a seemingly impenetrable wall between them. Characters learn the meaning of neighbors from start to finish and it all started with Mendela, going to his office on the first day of the presidency, letting everyone know that their jobs were secure as long as they did them to the best of their ability. Here was a man imprisoned for almost thirty years, finally free, now granting the very people who put him there the compassion they never showed him. Whether he was a terrorist or a killer really depends on your own feelings and moral center, but none of that matters here. This story is about rebuilding and striving for a freedom once seen impossible.

I know the film is based on a book, so I can only assume the events transpiring are for the most part true. In that case, the story itself is pretty amazing. Mendela was a workhorse, doing all he could to honor his people, the men and women who put him into power in order to do so. He is a very intelligent man and knows, from the lack of humanity shown for so long in his cell, the importance of the word. Watching how impassioned the citizens of his country can get about a sport showed him a way in, a way to level the playing field so to speak. How advantageous was it for the 1995 World Cup to be hosted by their nation? After watching the film, I wonder how successful Mendela would have been without that international stage given to him. But it is not only what is given; it is what you do with it. Mendela and those boys on the field are the epitome of that viewpoint because they left it all out on the field, willing a divided people to sing with one voice.

Clint Eastwood deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating this melding of political drama with sport. It is definitely not a film I would have seen him wanting to attempt, but he does it with competence and success, mixing it all together perfectly. There are a few missteps, including a cheesy song in Overtone’s “Colorblind”, and the use of a little boy to instill false fear of an assassination try during the finals, but overall I say bravo. And then there is the acting; that is where the true brilliance comes in. My standout is Tony Kgoroge as head of security Jason Tshabalala—a performance that I hope spawns a nice career for him. Then there is Morgan Freeman who, as my friend said to me afterwards, was made for this role. He has the mannerisms, the speech, and the look, becoming Mendela, body and soul. Matt Damon embodies his counterpart on the field, Francois Pienaar, with a stirring portrayal. I almost wanted more bombast, for this captain to be more vocal and inspiring, but he says himself that he leads by example, and that is what he does. The accent is smooth and the character well fleshed out. Seeing him and his fellow teammates on the field is also pretty invigorating, oftentimes in close-up, watching the mass of humanity locked in battle. The fight might have been waged on the grass, but the victory was one for the nation looking on, showing that South Africa was a country of the future, shining bright.

Invictus 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] MORGAN FREEMAN as Nelson Mandela in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Spyglass Entertainment’s drama “Invictus,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] McNEIL HENDRICKS (second from left) as Chester Williams, SCOTT EASTWOOD (third from left) as Joel Stransky and MATT DAMON (center) as Francois Pienaar in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Spyglass Entertainment’s drama “Invictus,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures


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