Film review by: Witney Seibold
One would assume that, upon hearing that Clint Eastwood (who will be 80 this year) was making a sports movie, that it would be, without fail, a film about an underdog baseball team. Perhaps playing in the 1930s. Odd, then, that Eastwood would decide to make a film about the historical World Cup match between the South African and New Zealand rugby teams. Odder still, that the impetus for the underdog team to win was a not-so-secret presidential decree from the saintly Nelson Mandela.
Despite the unpopularity of rugby in America, and despite the fact that many Americans may not be familiar with the political turmoil of South Africa in the mid 1990s, Eastwood’s film feels like most of his “upbeat” previous efforts: a feelgood, old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerker. Eastwood’s masterful work with a camera, his tendency to tell his tales at a slightly slower-than-usual pace, and his unabashed rooting for the little guy, make “Invictus” feel like a classic film from the ‘40s. At the grand climax of the film, when our team wins the world up (as South Africa did in 1995), whites and blacks hug one another, everyone temporarily forgets the political upheaval, and Mandela sits back in relaxation at the wondrous togetherness of the sporting event.
During apartheid, The Springboks were largely a whites-only rugby team, that black South Africans regularly rooted against. When Mandela was released from prison in the early ‘90s and elected leader, he wisely and amazing set his sights on political reparation and forgiveness, rather than revenge tactics. When Mandela caught wind that that South African sporting commission was going to change the name, colors and players of The Springboks, he personally intervened. Why, all his aides and security details asked, are you intervening in something as trivial as a rugby team? Mandela seemed to intuit (correctly, it turned out) that bringing whites and blacks together through the working-class pastime of sport would be a large step into further erasing apartheid, and perhaps smoothing out the lingering resentments of the separated classes.
It’s also possible that Mandela was just a huge rugby fan, and took a wicked delight in giving inspiring speeches to his favorite team. In the role of the president, Morgan Freeman does a crackerjack job of making sure that Mandela reads as an inspiring leader, but also a humorous and playful human being. The Springboks is represented by its team captain Francois Pienaar (a buffed up and bleach-blonde Matt Damon), who is possessed of a gee-whiz quality rarely seen outside of Capra movies.
Some of the film’s subplots, while seemingly extraneous, are actually the real meat of it. Mandela’s new security detail, for instance, is newly integrated, and the black security guards (lead by a very good Tony Kgoroge) must work with the white guys (led by Julian Lewis Jones) who were busting their heads not a year previous. They hate one another, and bicker and question each other’s orders, but all of them know that protecting Mandela is paramount, and are drawn together by belief in their jobs.
Sadly, as this is a sports movie, it also manages to fall into some of the crashingly melodramatic moments that mark the most melodramatic of sports movies. The hugging scenes at the end feel no less than saccharine. At one point, Mandela arrives by helicopter to give one last inspirational speech to The Springboks, and the most cloying, obvious, Russell-Watson-esque power ballad (called, groan, “Colorblind”) begins to play on the soundtrack. We’re treated to a reprise of this song over the credits. These moments brought in audience teeth-gnashing right when subtlety would have been more appropriate.
And did we need the scene of Pienaar walking through the prison where Mandela was held captive, seeing the ghosts of the blacks who used to be beaten there? A simple quiet moment of reflection would have done. We didn’t need the grand music and half-faded weeping faces peering at Pienaar through the years.
At the end of the day, however, “Invictus” is a sweet and well-meaning film of inspiration and joy. And it may just teach kids a thing or two about apartheid and the political genius of Nelson Mandela. The film puts the game and the man into an important historical context without drawing the obvious parallels to the Obama administration. Good job, Clint. You are an American master.