If you’ve ever read the poem “Invictus,” written by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, perhaps you might identify with the sentiments it expresses (never give up, bigger issues like honor and dignity are involved here) while barfing at its chest-thumping histrionic prose.
When you see the movie by the same title, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin, you will marvel at how he’s taken the poem’s sentiments and substituted a measured, stately tone for its bombasticness to create a wonderful movie about reconciliation and forgiveness, set against the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted by newly post-apartheid South Africa.
If you didn’t already know, the South African team, just-admitted back into the international rugby community, defied all odds and won the Cup. They beat a New Zealand squad that at the time was called the greatest team of all time, having smeared opponents by impossible scores. They were led by a behemoth, Jonah Lomu (Zak Feaunati). Their pre-game ritual included a native Maori pre-war chant meant to strike fear into their opponents.
But it didn’t strike fear into the South Africa team, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Mandela had personally requested to do something great, to exceed all expectations, (sports-wise, nation-rebuilding-wise), and win the World Cup. Just as in “Chariiots of Fire,” when Jackson Scholz gave Eric Liddell a scrap of biblical verse, so too does Mandela give Francois a handwritten copy of the poem which had maintained his spirit during his almost three decades of confinement.
Eastwood makes this a two-layered David versus Goliath story. First it’s the humanitarian story of Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) efforts to reconcile his apartheid-riven country. Second, it’s the sports story of South Africa versus New Zealand.
As Mandela, Freeman Lincoln-esquely effectively blends forgiveness (no mean feat: he had just spent 27 years in prison) into reconciliation. He doesn’t speak, he orates, he doesn’t gesture, he confers. In the movie’s first five minutes he integrates his white security detail and his white office staff into his administration. He then hits upon a brilliant tactic: understanding the cultural importance of rugby to the white population (the blacks play soccer; in matches they cheer for the opposing team), he vetoes the dismantling of the rugby team (remember, forgiveness, not vengeance) and uses sports for both political and humanitarian ends.
The visuals were breathtaking. Contrasts of the minuet-like grace of Freeman and the Raging Bull bulk of Damon. Contrasts of squalid shantytowns and manors of white privilege. Game-action scenes with which you wish TV sports cameras were just as effective. Spectacular stadium crowd shots that show how the colorblindness of sports fanaticism. All of which make you witness to the large-scale transformation of an entire country.
There are moments of pure cinematic magic as well. Especially captivating are game-action scenes in which someone yells “Engage” and a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking mammoth men try to force the ball out of the scrum. The team, as part of a public relations campaign, travels around the country conducting rugby clinics for black kids. No words are spoken, just fluid, apolitical poetic motion. Local kids jog with the team as they train for the final match, a la the “Chariots of Fire” opening scene. And the championship game, where 62,000 fans riotously cheer. And the moment the clock hit zero and they won, well...