, the story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 South African Rugby Team’s World Cup win, is an epic film set during an epic time. Clint Eastwood bit off a huge hunk to chew with this one, and it is definitely worth seeing. I went into the movie wanting to like it, and I did – but I did not love it. Let’s say that I would date it, but not marry it. Although it starts a bit slowly, it ends with the necessary strength to send you out of the theater believing that anything is possible. During this holiday season when our hearts are warmed to the boiling point and beyond by “inspirational” stories, it’s really nice to see one that is not sugar-coated and delivers a punch – kind of like rugby itself.
Most Americans are not that familiar with rugby, but after seeing this film, they may want to find out more about it. Rugby, played with minimal protective pads, is a full contact, knock-you-on-your-a**, sport that relies on brute strength, good defense, and kicking skill. In this sport, it’s not if you’ll get hurt - it’s when. American football looks like Ring Around the Rosie in comparison. One problem with the film is that you won’t really get a very good feel for rugby until the last game shown. Before that, choppy editing makes it hard to figure out what’s happening. In fact, it left me a little dizzy. Not trusting my own limited experience sports-wise, I wanted to run my impression by a couple of guys. I found two kind gentlemen, Curtis and Kevin, who were willing to share their thoughts about what I perceived as an editing problem. They agreed – in fact, they said that they would have liked to see more rugby – so I feel safe in saying that the rugby segments that preceded the “big finish” could have been shot and edited much better.
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are the only actors in the film who will be familiar to American audiences, but the rest of the cast is quite strong, too. Matt Damon gets to break out of the whole “Jason Bourne” thing, and portray a real strong man. His performance as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, is the strongest in the film as he struggles with the knowledge that the president of his country is counting on him to lead his team to victory on the grandest scale. He shows his remarkable range as an actor, especially in a scene in which the team goes on a “field trip” to the prison where Mandela was held for almost thirty years. He stands in the tiny cell, and with great economy of movement manages to show the epiphany his character experiences there.
Morgan Freeman has the difficult task of portraying a living legend. He does a good job, but not a transcendent one, and this film really calls for a soaring performance. He’s got all the gestures, the walk, and mannerisms of Mandela, but on occasion, his accent slips a bit, and viewers are reminded that they’re watching an actor. I can’t believe that Eastwood didn’t have enough takes available to select the ones with consistency in the accent department. Freeman shines when he is interacting with Mandela’s security chief who still carries ample bitterness about the injustice of apartheid. He convinces the man, very quietly, about the power of forgiveness. Mandela’s staff treats him with a reverence that approaches awe. What a burden for the man – not to mention the actor! Apparently, Eastwood felt the need to inject some scenes that would “humanize” him. One in particular, a very awkward dancing/flirting kind of thing, felt uncomfortable and contrived. Perhaps it would have been better to just let him be the saint everyone seems to think he is.
Clint Eastwood is not a kid-gloves kind of director, and the film’s message is pounded home again and again. It’s a long film, and perhaps a little judicial cutting here and there would have picked up the pace. There are some great shots of the shanties of the “townships”, as they are called, but the most effective one occurs when Mandela asks the Springboks to visit some of the poorest townships and hold rugby clinics. The men’s reactions to the living conditions and poverty of the area would have been enough to get the point across. The winning-over of these kids is a definite high point in the film. The Springbok team had long symbolized the domination of the white minority under apartheid; they were not well-regarded by the black majority. The team had only one black player, and the boys enthusiastic welcome for him – and no one else – is an eye-opener for the team. This encounter sets up the premise that drives the plot of the film. Mandela believed that if he could get the whole country to accept and support the Springboks, and if they, in turn, could produce the big win needed to restore national self-confidence, then another barrier created by apartheid would fall. The country needed unity if it was to survive the transition. In the early days of the demise of apartheid, civil war threatened, and that threat had not entirely vanished when Mandela was elected. Overall, Eastwood did a better job in last year’s GRAN TORINO of communicating the “you fear (and hate) what you don’t know” theme. However, by the end of INVICTUS, everybody has gotten to know everybody pretty well, and to sound of soaring brass, we have our happy ending.
The film’s title refers to a poem that inspired Mandela when he was a political prisoner for all those many years. It is recited in voice-over during Damon’s (Francois) scene in the jail cell with “ghost” images of Mandela appearing as Francois turns his gaze to different views from the cell and its window. The poem contains the phrase “my unconquerable soul”, and ends with the famous lines “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul”. The script dwells on the “unconquerable” part, and at the end, pulls lines from two different stanzas of the poem, which ruins the rhythm and cadence of the lines.
I agree with the two gentlemen I mentioned previously, Curtis and Kevin, who said that they would have liked to hear more of “that poem.” Well, me too.
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