Nation at play 

Invictus inspires without spoiling the story

In the closing moments of Clint Eastwood's Invictus the South African Springbok Rugby team takes its final kick at the 1995 World Rugby Cup Championship Game. I won't give away the game's resolution, though many will already know it, but I will say that by film's end the viewers get the win. The film is both emotionally sincere and politically accurate, a rare combination for movies that attempt to document South Africa's surprisingly non-violent transition to democracy.

Invictus tells the difficult and still unresolved story of national reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa. It does so through the vehicle of sport, something that is often symbolically linked to the imagination of any nation in complicated and sometimes dangerous ways. (At this intersection between identity, politics and sport think of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics or the history of racial violence that haunts European soccer play.) Mandela, a consummate statesman and arguably the most charismatic politician of our age, knew that sport could be used to marshal national unity in South Africa. Accordingly, he put the Springbok World Rugby Cup near the center of his "post-racial" politics after his 1994 election.

The difficulty of reconciliation and the depth of the racial division that characterized South Africa are both beautifully and starkly represented in the film's opening montage. Morgan Freeman as Mandela travels toward his inauguration on a two-lane road that, following the logic of Apartheid, separates black from white and poverty from wealth. Black soccer players cheer Mandela's presidential convoy from one side of the road, while white rugby players look on in silence from the other.

In the face of these historically entrenched divisions Mandela is known to have argued "don't address people's minds, address their hearts." During his 27-year confinement in Robben Island Prison, Mandela took the time to master the rules and tactics of rugby in order to connect with his Afrikaner guards and wardens—men who loved the game and the Springboks as famously as black South Africans hated the team for their connection to the white Afrikaans community.

In fact, Eastwood, Freeman, Matt Damon and the film's other actors follow Mandela's "address their hearts" sentiment to the letter, allowing Invictus to be an authentically poignant film. With a few notable exceptions (Kyle Eastwood misses with the soundtrack, taking a left-hand turn into sentimentalist city at minute 40), the film avoids easy emotional gains: There are no clear victories in the end. The final shots of Invictus frame Freeman in close-up in the back of his car, his fingers rubbing the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed, his face a mask of weariness and a sign of the human cost of the work done in South Africa.

click to enlarge Hand puppets played a surprisingly important role in the fight against Apartheid.
  • Hand puppets played a surprisingly important role in the fight against Apartheid.

The film adeptly weaves multiple plot lines in which the struggle is the same: overcoming the anger of the past and facing the fears of the future. Mandela's government balances on the knife's edge as he works to be the president of "all South Africans." Again, the price is high and the film doesn't flinch from the history of how politics split the Mandela family in two. Mandela's presidential bodyguards and the Springboks both have to adjust to playing with and for the old "enemy." Mandela wants his idea of a "rainbow nation" to be reflected in the makeup of his bodyguards. Members of the ANC (The African National Congress, once an armed nationalist party) must work side by side with members of the South African Special Branch Services, many of whom were responsible for the worst excesses of Apartheid. The Springboks initially labor against the slogan "One Team, One Nation." In operating against black and white stereotypes (without denying the history of violent oppression in South Africa) Invictus becomes more than just the "feel-good" movie that it most assuredly is.

The acting is strong. Freeman's Mandela is a man and not a saint (although Mandela himself seems as close to that state of transcendence as any human can get). Damon's portrayal of François Pienaar, the Springbok's team captain, is remarkable for its physicality and dialect work. The rugby itself, however, is not perfectly filmed. The choice to film almost all of the rugby action in close and medium shots means that much of the strategic complexity of a game that has been called a chess match played at speed with great, brutal violence, is lost.

Minor flaws aside and with its heart worn on its sleeve, Invictus is a political drama for our time: an era in which social division seems to have led to a kind of national stasis over everything from health care legislation to the notion of "America" itself. In that context, as well as on its own terms, the drama of a president and a people moving through and beyond a history of terror, oppression and racism is inspiring.

Invictus continues at the Carmike 10.

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