INVICTUS Movie Review

Derek Jeter

by Rick Grant
The central premise of this film involves Nelson Mandela’s ascension to the Presidency of South Africa in 1995. Mandela realized that he had to unify the divided nation and heal the past wounds of Apartheid. Master filmmaker Clint Eastwood took this critical time for Mandela (Morgan Freeman) to craft this movie into a commercially viable formulaic narrative.
The result is an entertaining film that doesn’t rise to the level of being Oscar worthy, except for Morgan Freeman’s brilliant performance as Mandela. When he took office, there were a plethora of problems to solve, but uniting he nation was a top priority.
Mandela made sure he had Afrikaners in his administration and he even hired white body guards to work with his personal black security force. At the time, the nation was deeply divided by racial hatreds on both sides.
So, Mandela decided that taking a losing, mostly white rugby team, Springbok’s club, and inspiring it to win the World Cup was a fast track to unity. This team had been a symbol of Apartheid, so if he could get whites and blacks behind the team, it would unite the nation in the spirit of the joy of winning.
The captain of the team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) was invited to meet Mandela at the Presidency. Pienaar was deeply moved and inspired by Mandela’s prophet-like presence. Mandela gave Pienaar a poem “Invictus” (it means unconquered) by William Ernest Henley to inspire the team.
Mandela also wanted the team to tour the poor townships to work with the youth coaching them to play rugby to generate positive publicity. At first the team didn’t want to do this side job, but once they got into it, they benefitted from the sense of helping to build racial harmony.
Anthony Peckham’s script, which was adapted from John Carlin’s book, takes the high road of Mandela’s strong leadership ability. He reached out to the whites and blacks to put aside their racism and come together for the sake of a strong South Africa. Unfortunately, the script does not delve too deeply into Mandela’s Herculean efforts to make change in a country crippled by poverty, violence, and racism.
Eastwood played it safe by lumping all the divisive undercurrents of Mandela’s trials and tribulations into the brutal rugby scenes, which, considering the fact that most American viewers do not understand this sport, wax much too long. Clearly, rugby is a remote cousin to our football, but the ball can only be passed backwards and to the side. Of course, there are many other differences that will baffle American audiences. Most remarkably, the players wear no padding or protection of any kind, which makes our heavily armored football Gladiators seem like wimps.
Matt Damon, who bulked up for this role, turned in a memorable performance as Pienaar. He struck a balance of his character’s inspired spirit to win and emotional subtleties devoid of pomposity.
In a key scene, the team visits the prison complex where Mandela was held for 27 years. Pienaar goes inside Mandela’s former cell and imagines how Mandela must have felt for all those years. Damon deftly acted this scene with his eyes and subtle facial expressions, without saying a word. Undoubtedly, It’s Damon’s finest film scene to date.
Using the rugby team as a subtext to Mandela’s dedication to unite the nation was a clever ploy to chronicle Mandela’s importance as a prophet and world leader. But Eastwood got carried away with the rugby scenes and neglected the real story of Mandela’s rise to greatness. Still, the movie is worth seeing just to experience Morgan Freeman’s exemplary performance capturing Mandela’s spirit and Matt Damon’s nuanced acting.