#16 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
This feels like a fairy tale. Born of Morgan Freeman’s desire to play Nelson Mandela in a film about the South African leader’s life, it is a celebration of the man and his triumph in bringing the embittered, divided nation together through bread and circuses. It’s ultimately about Mandela’s vision at a united South Africa and the power of unpolitical sports spectacles. That fairy tale aspect ends up making me question a fair amount of the specifics in the history presented, but Invictus is ultimately a simple story well-told.
Nelson Mandela (Freeman) has been released from prison and elected president of South Africa after blacks have been given the right to vote for the first time in the nation’s history. Presented with a host of challenges ranging from crime to trade issues to the presidential staff deciding to leave en masse, he needs to bring the country together as one nation before anything else can be truly addressed. In the middle of this is the South African rugby team, called the Springboks. The ascendant black South African majority sees the green and gold of the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, and they take their first moves to change the name, colors, and symbol of the team that has represented the South African rugby team since the 19th century. Helped none at all by the fact that the team, led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is terrible to the point that they get the automatic placement in the 1995 World Cup, it seems like the first bit of cultural revenge that will be taken upon the Afrikaners of South Africa after their fall from power will be their rugby team. After all, rugby is a white man’s sport while the blacks prefer soccer.
Mandela, seeing a political opportunity when he finds one, decides that the best opportunity for reconciliation and even potential forgiveness is rugby. With South Africa hosting the World Cup in just a year, it could be the kind of spectacle that helps heal some of the nation’s deep wounds, so he invites Pienaar to the presidential palace and asks him obliquely to win the World Cup.
The story of the hurts between the two major sections of the nation is told in microcosm through the presidential security team led by Jason (Tony Kgoroge) who had been with Mandela for years and gets matched with four Afrikaner security men led by Etienne (Julian Lewis Jones). One line that gets repeated by a few characters is when a black character looks at a white one and says that they look like the kind of people who terrorized them in the past. It gets said of Etienne and it gets said of Francois. Forgiveness is going to be hard to come by, and maybe a common desire to see South Africa win in something relatively meaningless as rugby could help start that process. Jason and Etienne find it hard to work together at first, but they are professionals and find a way to make it work at the most basic of levels until they steadily come together as they watch Mandela’s vision of a united South Africa begin to come together.
Francois uses Mandela’s philosophies on leadership to help him inspire his team, though he also has his own troubles with the racial divide. There is only one black man on the team, Chester (McNeil Hendricks), and the rest are outright antagonistic towards Mandela and the idea of a united South Africa. They also know that they are not that good of a team, and they have little hope for doing more than showing up for their first match against Australia. Yet, training continues, and they’re even given the task of leading coaching camps with some of the poor of South Africa, a task “from the top” that is there to help further create the ties between the poorer parts of the nation with this effort from Mandela to create unity. There’s a deep cynicism hiding underneath a lot of this, and it even gets somewhat addressed.
Mandela’s chief of staff, Brenda (Adjoa Andoh), wants him to forget all this rugby stuff because there’s more important work to be done. At one point, as Mandela has gotten more and more invested in the particulars of rugby, the tournament, and the players, she questions whether it’s all just politics anymore. He wasn’t doing this out of a human sense of compassion. He was doing it because he needed to offer up a symbol of unity to the people who controlled the industries and military of the country. It’s an interesting little element to the story that only comes up briefly because this is a movie about a ragtag team winning it big, not a hard-hitting look at the first year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
And that ragtag team does end up winning it all, of course. The rugby is well-filmed, as one might expect from a Clint Eastwood film, but he hadn’t done much action filming in his career. He apparently became quite enamored of the game while filming in South Africa, and he films the action with both immediacy while also giving it a clean feel that allows for the following of the action at the same time.
In the end, it’s all uplifting and nice. It really feels like a fairy tale. It feels like there are missing points that would provide a less pure portrait (there’s something about food poisoning of the New Zealand team that never gets mentioned, for instance), but it’s just really nice and warm. It’s Clint making a crowd-pleaser that was something of a passion project for his star. It doesn’t really want to sully the idea of Mandela’s victory with even implying that it could have been temporary, that the rifts in South African society would come back despite the rugby win. Still, it was a nice victory while it lasted.