Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 134 minutes
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon and Adjoa Andoh.
Movies like “Chariots of Fire” and “Miracle” have shown just how the grand tradition of athletics can serve a greater purpose. That modus operandi comes across once again in “Invictus.”
After the 1990 release of South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), the dissolution of South Africa’s apartheid government begins. And, as the old system makes way for the new, African National Congress representative Mandela wins the presidential election from a populace that has equal voting rights for the first time in 1994.
But as he takes office, he finds obstacles both expected — resistance from his white countrymen — and surprising — black nationals who want vengeance against their former oppressors. Mandela wants the nation of South Africa to come together regardless of the past, and he finds a strategy with the national rugby team, which is flailing.
The Springboks are despised by whites for their losing record and scorned by blacks, who see rugby as a purely colonial sport.
But Mandela sees the game as the perfect opportunity to unite his country as he arranges for South Africa to host the 1995 World Cup.
Freeman never loses a step as the famed politician, who never stops his efforts to better the nation, even well into his 70s during the film’s events.
His gambit is helped along by Springboks team captain Francois Pienaar, excellently portrayed by Matt Damon.
Damon finely conveys Pienaar’s hesitance at being challenged to lead his ragtag squad to victory against competitors such as New Zealand, France and Western Samoa, as well as his determination to help along the cause of unity.
However, the actor’s feigned Afrikaner accent presents a problem from time to time, frequently slipping into more of an Australian inflection.
Other cast members have more authenticity, such as Tony Kgoroge as Mandela’s head of security, Jason Tshabalala, embittered at his president’s decision to integrate his bodyguards; Adjoa Andoh as Brenda Mazikubo, Mandela’s protective chief of staff; and McNiel Hendricks as Chester Williams, the Springboks’ most popular and only black team member.
The racial inequity of South Africa is apparent from the film’s beginning, with the opening scene contrasting a group of Afrikaner youths — playing rugby with pristine equipment on well-manicured grass enforced by a wrought iron fence — and black children across the street — wearing rags, kicking around a well-worn soccer ball in a dusty vacant lot flanked by barbed wire. But with this just a brief setup, the movie is less about showing the evils of apartheid than it is about showing the progress made after its termination.
After serving on roughly 30 films as a director, Clint Eastwood knows how to appeal to his audience, in this case bringing out the inspirational story at the core rather than focusing on the negativity that leads up to it, almost negating the struggle involved in reversing the hostility of the post-apartheid nation. The filmmaker glosses over Mandela’s personal problems, such as his alienation from his family, but he never turns him into a martyr, emphasizing that the leader is a man, not a saint.
As for the Springboks, we get right into the scrum to see just how apathetic many of the players are about their chance to unite the country, only realizing the bigger picture under Pienaar’s guidance.
“Invictus” takes its title from a William Ernest Henley poem for which Mandela has a special affinity because of its message of standing up for one’s beliefs. And his techniques pay off, as we see South Africans, black and white alike, coming together to celebrate as one thanks to the combined fortitude of Mandela and Pienaar.
How fitting a representation for a piece of writing that concludes, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”