Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

Never underestimate the unifying power of sport.

That’s but one theme in the powerful drama Invictus, released last week on DVD. Set in post-apartheid South Africa after the presidential election of Nelson Mandela, the movie earnestly believes that differing persons will come together if given a common cause. History shows that the common cause usually entails a common foe, as seen in times of war. So it’s inspirational, to say the least, that something as distracting as rugby could also unite a country so racially divided as South Africa.

But maybe I’m underestimating the international appeal of rugby. Invictus, after all, is about how the unlikely South African Springbok rugby team won the World Cup in 1995, shortly after Mandela took power. That the team won is a classic underdog story, especially against a heavily favored New Zealand team. But at the heart of the film is an even more overwhelming event: that the black population of South Africa came to support a mostly white team that, to them, once represented oppression.

According the film, blacks didn’t even like rugby. To them, it also represents a great economic divide, brilliantly visualized in the film’s first scene. The film opens with a lush, green field. White prep-schoolers are practicing rugby on it. But then the camera pans across the street, and we see on a dry barren field a group of black children playing soccer. Without a word of dialogue we see how even in its recreation the country is divided. That would be enough for a great statement, but who should come down the road in between them: Nelson Mandela, being released from jail. The whites sneer at his caravan, while the black children rush to the road to cheer.

This is essentially the story: Mandela, as president, straddling the line between black and white to give South Africa a future. He is fighting to make the change he represents. The country has a new government and a new flag, but many with powerful interests in the old system are suspicious and scared. Mandela uses the Springbok team as a symbol of reconciliation. He needs everybody waving the new flag and feeling inspired.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Invictus is that its creator and its players seem wrong for the material. Yet after watching the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone else making the film work.

I’ll begin with director Clint Eastwood, who no doubt is one of our best directors. But I wouldn’t have chosen him for an inspirational sports story or a biography, least of all one on Mandela. I’d always take Clint for a gritty affair, such as a war story, a crime story, and a western, of course. But a political history involving rugby?

Invictus could well have been a disaster without the restraint Eastwood is known for. As with that opening shot, Eastwood knows exactly how long to linger in a scene. Small moments, such as an impoverished boy refusing to wear a Springbok jersey though he has nothing else to wear, reveal the quietly blunt style that we expect from an Eastwood film.

Next is Matt Damon as the captain of the Springboks. I wouldn’t have cast him. Damon at first looks a touch too old for a rugby player. But as the film wears on his stocky frame and determined anger over losing too many games work. Damon is a likeable, if sometimes bland, actor on screen, and that’s exactly what his character needs. He’s simple, yet good-hearted, and someone we can root for, someone who exerts leadership.

Finally, we have Morgan Freeman as Mandela. I’ve come to see Freeman as a bit of a loafing actor over the years, only because he’s so good at playing the humorous sage, the wise friend, be it in detective roles or in Driving Miss Daisy. As Mandela, Freeland stretches well beyond this, proving that he can embody a man known the world over. This might be his most challenging role, and it also might be Freeman’s best role. By the end of the film, we believe he is Mandela.

Because of Freeman’s performance and Eastwood’s subtle direction, the best moments of the film don’t involve Mandela and the rugby players, but Mandela’s relationship with his staff. The way he speaks to people, the gentle ways in which he challenges and opposes their thinking are wonderfully important moments that string together to give us a portrait of this legend. An example is when he explains to his own daughter how limited her thinking is concerning what South Africa needs.

This is not a man lecturing but a man teaching, through forgiveness.

Freeman and Eastwood are so effective that I found it a shame that they only concentrate on this one moment in Mandela’s life. How much more could we see in the form of a miniseries on Mandela.

Also, the sports scenes themselves are too long at times. Maybe I just don’t find rugby exciting, but I’d rather see more of Mandela instead of what eventually turns into the rugby version of Hoosiers. Eastwood does a good job of cutting between the final rugby match to the South African households and taverns watching the game, but the tail end of the film feels a bit too much like every other sports film.

Only in Invictus, we’re left to contemplate the victory of a country. The title of the film comes from the 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley. The last two lines read “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” This is the language that Mandela used to get through prison, and he applies it to his new country. By the end of the film, it’s more than an aspiration.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010