Movie Review – Invictus (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Invictus is a dramatization of recent South African history and part biopic of Nelson Mandela. It is set during the early days of Mandela’s presidency and revolves around his efforts to promote national reconciliation through the vehicle of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, to which South Africa played host. Morgan Freeman plays Mandela and Matt Damon co-stars as the captain of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks. Invictus was directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Anthony Peckham based on John Carlin’s non-fiction book. The title, Latin for “unconquered,” is taken from a 19th century English inspirational poem read by Mandela during his years as a political prisoner; it is an apt summation of the film’s interpretation of Mandela and the nation under his leadership.
Invictus is in most respects a very ordinary film. It is also a very powerful film, a seeming contradiction that is explained by the subject matter. The story is meaningful, emotionally resonant, and above all true. Invictus derives its force from the audience’s understanding that these events really happened and really made a difference to South Africans. In return, it provides a respectful, earnest re-telling of the story for an American audience that knows it, if at all, from half-remembered newspaper headlines.
The plot charts the buildup to the championship match, and the match is staged as the film’s big dramatic finale, but Invictus is not really about rugby. This is exemplified by the fact that it is not remotely necessary to be able to follow a rugby play to follow everything that happens in the film, even in the many on-field scenes. The film makes a feint at explaining the rules of the game as part of a sequence where the Springbok players hold a youth training camp, but the effort can just barely be described as perfunctory. I went in knowing nothing about rugby, I came out knowing next to nothing, and that was just fine by the filmmakers.
It is appropriate that the filmmakers chose the Rugby World Cup to symbolize the animating spirit of the Mandela presidency because the competition was never just about rugby either, any more than the Afrikaners’ beloved Springboks was just a rugby team. The film does not pretend that cheering for the same (historically an icon of Afrikaner culture and of apartheid) sports team erases past injustice or present inequality; rather, the message is that the – any – celebration of national pride and unity represents the choice to look forward in hope instead of backward in recrimination. Freeman anchors the project with a remarkable performance as Mandela. Eastwood’s direction is straightforward and unadorned; while unexciting, it has the merit of seeming attuned to Mandela’s governing style.
Eastwood and his scriptwriter dramatize the symbolic meaning of the Springboks and the nation’s coming together to cheer the team on in the finals in several ways. The most effective is the evolving interplay between the black and Afrikaner members of Mandela’s security detail. Less effective is the heavy use of “ordinary South African” reaction shots; a white home here, a black neighborhood bar there, everyone gasping and cheering in unison. By the end, the cuts to the-man-on-the-street came with wearying regularity.