Rugby and Reconciliation
Not often do sports movies go beyond themselves. The competitor wins, the team triumphs, sometimes camaraderie also happens, and well, that's all rousing, and we're happy for it, and that's that, somehow at once both bracing and soppy. We leave with an admiration for pluck or just plain old luck, whether it be for Rocky, Rudy, Hoosiers, or The Rookie. Every once in a while, an exception does come along: Eight Men Out (1988), John Sayles' meditation on the ill-famed Chicago Black Sox; The Natural (1984), a mythopoetic tale of baseball magic; Field of Dreams (1989), full of father longing and Shoeless Joe; and last, Chariots of Fire (1981), a British film that perhaps comes closest to penetrating the varied allure of performance.
And now there is Invictus, Clint Eastwood's film of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which an inspired South Africa scrapped its way to the finals to beat a far more powerful New Zealand team. Remarkable is perhaps the best word for it. Part of that comes from Eastwood's refusal to cheese up the telling—no gymnastic camera, no glitzy lighting, no breakneck cutting, no string anthems, and, above all, no trumped up melodrama. Instead, he tells his real-life tale in flat-out deadpan fashion. It helps enormously that this is one story that does not in the least need any amping up. And the truth is that Eastwood might have done more dramatic pumping than he does, given the much fuller and quite wondrous story told in the source account, journalist John Carlin's closely documented Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation (2008). The events of the film begin two-thirds of the way through Carlin's book.
In short, for all of the inherent wow factor of the story itself, a "fairy-tale," as one South African player put it, Invictus is a rather quiet account, as befits the manner of its central character, the great African leader Nelson Mandela, played with respectful grace by Morgan Freeman. It's been easy enough over the years for Freeman simply to play Freeman, a blues-loving son of the Mississippi Delta, especially when in cahoots with Eastwood, who invariably casts him in amply comfortable roles (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby). Here, though, Freeman stretches, and the performance seems pitch perfect. That is no easy task. The actual Nelson Mandela, for all of his legendary stature, is self-contained and mild-mannered, and on the public-speaker charisma index, decidedly bland. But Freeman manages to convey the appeal of Mandela the statesman: unswerving determination complemented by personal charm, a dose of courtliness, and insistent kindness to everyone, especially to his enemies.
The film pays what heed it can to Mandela's (and South Africa's) long and complicated backstory. A lawyer and a prominent political activist, he was in 1964 (at age 46) sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid South African government for political agitation in resistance to mounting racial oppression. Mandela spent the next eighteen years at hard labor on the notorious Robben Island, a South African Alcatraz, located just off the coast of Cape Town. By the mid-1980s, acknowledging drastic change as inexorable, P. W. Botha's white-supremacist government saw in Mandela, by now an international cause clbre, a reasonable negotiating partner. In 1988, for the convenience of the government—and a bit of pr for a nation that had become an international pariah—Mandela was moved to the relative luxury of a warden's cottage at a prison near Johannesburg. There he stayed until early in 1990, when at last he was released at the age of 71, an event the film hastily covers. Four years later, with a new constitution and South Africa's first democratic elections, Mandela became its first black prime minister.
The winner inherited a bitterly divided country, white Africans deeply frightened and many black Africans eager for swift retribution. The question was not only whether the political insurgents could actually run a modern techno-state but whether the two races could somehow conjoin for mutual well-being. So dire was the antagonism that the country narrowly averted a coup and civil war, thanks, apparently, to Mandela's secret talks with the far right-wing Afrikaner leadership. What is remarkable is that time and time again, the path Mandela takes confounds both sides. On his first walk into the president's office, he finds white staff cleaning out their desks, upon which he calls a meeting to invite all to stay in their jobs so long as they will commit to the new government (Carlin's book indicates that they all do). And when Mandela's black security chief gets more staff, he protests that Mandela has sent him white men from the old government's infamously brutal security service. Here and throughout, the word in Mandela's mouth and his deeds is reconciliation. Indeed, Mandela's great accomplishment in his prison days and afterward was his immense dedication (and skill) in winning respect and trust from even the most extreme opponents, whether they be guards or prime ministers. Mandela's posture throughout all the troubled years of South Africa, including his own long imprisonment, recalls old Lear's radical humility, speaking to the true-hearted daughter he has deeply wronged: "When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness; so we'll live." One means to effecting healing of that sort is the focus of Invictus.