Invictus **** (out of ****)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin
Cast: Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern
Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language)
Running Time: 134 min
Release Date: 12/11/09

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus presents the story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) through the lens of events leading up the victory of South Africa’s national ruby team in the 1995 World Cup. To base a film about as significant a figure as Mandela on such narrow focus as ruby seems at first a little odd. However, there is a method to this “madness” on the part of both Eastwood and Mandela.

Nelson Mandela before his release from prison in 1990 was internationally revered as a freedom fighter for the rights of South Africa’s majority black population. On the other hand he was branded a communist and a terrorist by South Africa’s Afrikaner population and many others world wide. In fact he was barred from entering the United States except to speak at the UN until 2008 on the latter basis. The end of Cold War, years of growing pressure from anti-Apartheid activists, and evolution of views of the white leadership created the conditions leading to Mandela’s release after 26 years of imprisonment and negotiations to end apartheid. Within four years free elections open to all South Africans were held and Mandela was elected president.

Invictus starts in the aftermath of the forgoing events. One might think that a man would be vindictive after Mandela’s experiences. However, he was determined to work to bring the diverse elements of South Africa together for the benefit of all. Let’s not forget that in addition to black-white conflict there were plenty of conflicts between the various tribal groups as well. No doubt he understood that if one started down the road to paybacks the whole situation would spin out of control.

The action of the film centers on three parallel plot lines. The first centering on Mandela himself and his close advisors, the second on the captain of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), and the last Mandela’s security detail lead by Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge) who lives in fear of an assignation attempt at any moment.

It might seem that an excessive focus was placed on the security detail which never had to deal with a real threat throughout the film. However, this was vehicle to show the bold effort at unity Mandela was undertaking. He formed a security detail composed of his ANC people and the former regimes SAS trained guards. This was met with consternation by both parties. We watch as they slowly, well very slowly, came to trust each other which is a metaphor for the larger processes occurring throughout South Africa.

The black majority had long been rooting against the Springboks as they were viewed as a symbol of apartheid. On the other hand they were a passionate obsession with much of the white minority. Mandela chose to intervene personally to stop the new sports administration from eliminating the team. He saw that such an action would not materially benefit to the majority but it would alienate the minority who did hold most of the key jobs in the country and upon whose skills and active participation advancement of the country as a whole would depend.

We follow Mandela’s plan as he worked to support the Springboks and get the team to gain acceptance with black majority. It was a tough sell. He develops a relationship with Francois starting with surprise invitation to a personal meeting, he attends ruby games much to the consternation of Jason Tshabalala over security concerns, and he has the team stage photo ops with young black ruby players. He follows the World Cup competitors closely as politician in a tight race follows the tracking polls.

If all went right and the Springboks win, he could use the competitive enthusiasm to foster national unity. One major obstacle to winning the World Cup was the streak victories be racked up by the All Blacks, the New Zealand national team. So naturally everything will hinge on the final big game is it typical for sports films. Eastwood goes all out in depicting the rugged competition. However, he completely avoids the controversy over the alleged deliberate food poisoning of the New Zealand team.

Eastwood uses the sports story primarily as a vehicle to examine the personality and character of Nelson Mandela. It is also a testament to the people of South Africa of all races, ethnicities, and tribes to have avoided a catastrophe of a genocidal civil war. In a sense both De Klerk and Mandela both sold out the hardliners on their respective sides to achieve a peaceful end to apartheid. In retrospect we can all be glad they did.

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