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.
Still, whatever his personal magnetism, Mandela cannot meet individually with the whole of a divided South Africa. With that recognition comes the potential of sport in general and rugby in particular. Mandela gets it in his head that one way of uniting the country would be to find something that all South Africans could cheer. Hence, South Africa's national rugby team should win the World Cup. The problem with that scheme is that, one, the national team is a very clear underdog (the film overplays this), especially against a massive and potent New Zealand team; two, rugby is really a white person's sport, particularly beloved by ardent supporters of apartheid, a condition aggravated by a long apartheid-induced international ban on South Africa, whereas black South Africans vastly prefer soccer, scorning rugby as an emblem of white control; and three, the Springboks, the national team, has only one black player and also proudly wears colors associated with white domination. How Mandela, and finally the team itself, manage to overcome these assorted obstacles makes the substance of the tale.
And rousing it is, though it would no doubt seem corny and preposterous if it were not all true. The film version chiefly emphasizes Mandela's role in these events as opposed to the team's efforts, though those are very much inspired by Mandela's personal care for a team largely consisting of non-political brawler types. Mandela befriends the team captain, Francois Pienaar (quietly played by Matt Damon), and he makes efforts to know the team and to introduce rugby and the team to black South Africans. Moreover, Mandela confronts the deep-down hostility of black South Africans for his support of the Springboks, which he shows by arguing that the team should keep both its name and its green-and-gold jerseys.
Lo, it does work, Eastwood providing, perhaps a bit too often, obvious instances of black and white coming round to rally enthusiasm for the Springboks. But that was apparently just the way it happened. In all of this, viewers witness Mandela's elegant combination of guile, hope, and care working its wondrous way. Of course, the team's own prodigious efforts have a lot to do with that unimaginable display of support; this is, after all, their return to international competition after the long ban for apartheid. Most of all, though, we witness the mysterious, deeply healing power of sport, even with so brutal a sport as rugby—football without the pads, played skin to skin, shoulder to sweaty buttock.
All of that is very strange, and—despite a flood of monographs, dissertations, and scholarly articles—we haven't gotten very far in understanding why and how for player and fan alike sport does what it does. Striving for a kind of "thick description" of how cultures function and persist, anthropologist Clifford Geertz construed notions of "deep play," games and rituals wherein people "tell themselves about themselves," and much of what Geertz argues about cohesion explains a good deal about Mandela's gamble on rugby in South Africa. Still, imponderables remain: from whence does this bent come, and what story does sport at its deepest tell? For fans, as in Invictus, sport unites stalwart adversaries, Afrikaner and African, in support of some transcendent something beyond themselves. Frankly, that this should happen does not make much sense, but happen it does.
From another angle, though, sport seems at its purest to summon from some well within the appetite for "playing together" or with another, which is ultimately an elaborate form of celebrating at least the prospect of mutuality, if not the thing itself. In competition, two "adversaries" meet together to vie for something or other within a set of agreed upon rules, and that is play. That this should happen at all and that so many take remarkable pleasure in it makes even less sense.
A Christian anthropology might link all of this to humankind's profound thirst for the original harmony—a condition of profound trust and gladness wherein the lamb and the lion frisk, no creature preys upon another, Adam and Eve walk with God at the time of the evening breeze—all an exultant expression of the goodness of physicality and pure, full delight in being alive. In the delight and beauty of bodies and souls in contest with themselves or others—whether in hitting a curveball, completing a golf swing, or pounding each other raw—we glimpse the dream of wholeness and reconciliation. In play, then, lies a kind of "fun" that partakes of the plenitude of delight and intimacy intended for the whole creation. When that happens, sport becomes dance and even, perhaps, still another form of mating.
And so sport goes its way, these days especially broken and mangled, but still one of the deeper puzzles in human behavior. Sometimes, rarely, for reasons beyond knowing, sport does what it was meant to do. For a brief time in South Africa, sport did its thing, yielding reconciliation and unity, at least for a brief while, in a grievously wounded land. Eastwood's Invictus catches that story, and the story of Nelson Mandela's profoundly Christian vision of what love in the world should mean.
Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College. This review is dedicated to Russ DeVette (1923-2009), for over two decades as head basketball coach at Hope College the embodiment of sport as caritas.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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