Invictus Conquers

Go. See. This. Movie. It will tackle you in the opening frame and pin you down until the final newsreel footage. Even though the concept of rugby dominates, the movie isn’t about the game. Genius director Clint Eastwood seamlessly weaves an explanation of the elements of the game into the narrative so that by the last match everyone will understand enough to appreciate this game of tactics, skill, and yes brutality.

The story is probably familiar to anyone who was conscious during the 1990s. Nelson Mandela, the head of the African National Congress, spent 18 of his 27 years in prison in an 8 by 8 foot cell on Robben Island when he wasn’t breaking rocks in the blaze of the sun. After his release, blacks were allowed to vote for the first time, and they overwhelmingly elected him president. One of the early shots of the movie has him taking a pre-dawn walk with two bodyguards, colleagues from the ANC. A pile of newspapers written in Afrikaans lands at their feet. The guards ask him about the headline. Mandela says, “He can win, but can he govern?” The guards bristle, but Mandela says, “It’s a legitimate question.”

It is scenes such as this that made me feel that I was watching a documentary. Morgan Freeman embodies Mandela – his erect posture and stiff back with injury only implied, his speech patterns, even the sadness in his eyes. He shows the man’s humanity and compassion, also his sprightly humor, his ease at flirting with pretty women, and in some of the most poignant scenes, his loneliness and isolation.

Mandela realizes that even though he has the wholehearted support of the country’s black majority, he will not be able to govern effectively unless he engages the white minority – especially the Afrikaners who had oppressed his people for decades.

To that end Mandela enlists the support of François Pienaar, the captain of the failing Springboks rugby team. The team has been a glaring symbol of Afrikaner supremacy as the whites always the support the team and the few blacks who watch rugby always root for the opponents. Even the colors green and gold evoke revulsion.

Eastwood made another genius move in casting Pienaar, though the choice wasn’t obvious. About 20 minutes into the movie, Larry exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Matt Damon!” The guy had bulked up to approach the heft of the real Pienaar who stood more than 6 feet and weighed almost 240 pounds. To my untrained ear, Damon also nailed that slightly nasal accent, which you know is related to German but isn’t German because of the occasional overtone of Aussie-inflected English.

Invictus is based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, and of course the ending is no secret: Supported and even goaded by Mandela, Pienaar takes his team to the World Cup finals. The final match, against the unironically named New Zealand All Blacks (for their uniforms), is quintessential theatrics. The All Blacks open each match with a haka – a Maori war dance. Just watching those beefy white men and one terrifying Maori grunt and posture is worth the price of admission.

The movie title comes from a brief nineteenth century poem. The word means undefeated, and the poem ends, “I am the master of my fate;/I am the captain of my soul.” Eastwood uses those words to maximum effect at various places throughout the movie.

If there are any negatives, they are so minor as to be inconsequential. The action moved too quickly at various points, but at 2:20 the movie never dragged, so I guess speedy action was necessary. Also there are a couple of vaguenesses – the woman with Pienaar may have been his girlfriend or his wife – not clear. And how the Springboks wound up with one black player before Mandela’s government took over was not explained.

Everything else – the scenery from the crushing poverty of the shantytowns to the beauty of Cape Town from the air, to the seething hatred between the former ANC leaders and the Special Forces who return to guard Mandela, to brief glimpses of his hostile daughter – is altogether brilliant.

Invictus gets an A. I’d go see it again in a minute.

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