Invictus drops the ball on South African history

Written by Anthony Peckman
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman
Runtime: 133 minutes
In cinemas now

It’s one of those stories that you wouldn’t have believed if it were fiction. A year after Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) becomes president of a South Africa still raw with the wounds of apartheid, its national rugby team (once a shorthand for the violence of apartheid in the minds of black South Africans) wins the 1995 Rugby World Cup — with the full support of 43 million South Africans. And if you’re to believe director Clint Eastwood, this victory was the most important one in terms of South African national politics since the Mandela’s release from prison five years earlier.

Based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, the film begins on February 11, 1990 — the day Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison. His car drives down a road that separates white South Africans practicing rugby on an immaculate (and heavily fenced in) field while a group of black children play soccer in a dirt paddock. Eastwood’s visual metaphors tend to be as complicated as that — they are visually powerful, but predictable. The rest of the film takes place from the time Mandela was elected president in 1994 to the end of the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Those not familiar with South African political history in the early 1990s may find the time jump between 1990 and 1994 confusing.

While concerned with the obvious pressing issues of the day, Mandela is portrayed as a calm, even figure who seizes upon every opportunity to bring the racially divided nation together. He attends a rugby union match between England’s Red and Whites and South Africa’s Springboks where he is largely booed by the mostly white crowd as he greets the players. As he watches the match, he comments that the Springboks’ supporters were white and the visiting English team had the whole-hearted support of black South Africans. It’s also worth noting the white crowd mostly still waves the apartheid-era national flag rather than the newly adopted “multi-racial” one. (This is another one of Eastwood’s visual shorthands.)

The film progresses with a clear idea from Mandela — one of the ways he can “unite” the nation is to ensure the Springboks win the World Cup, conveniently being hosted in South Africa in a year’s time. The problem with his plan is the Springboks are playing abysmally and are only expected to make it through the first round due to their guaranteed entry as the host nation’s team. Enter Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Mandela meets with Pienaar to tell him of his desire for a World Cup victory. Pienaar, child of white South African privilege and ensconced within the recalcitrant whites in post-apartheid South Africa, agrees to do his best. His teammates, however, are not as keen. As part of the PR campaign leading up to the World Cup, the Springboks players are sent out into some of the slum neighbourhoods to teach black children about rugby. The only player of colour, Chester Williams, is greeted with shrieks of delight from the children while the rest of the players are ignored. As the day goes on, each side learns from each other and you’re left almost waiting for a chorus of Kumbaya because, while historically accurate, it still feels a little hokey.

The Springboks did in fact go on to win the World Cup, beating a seemingly impossible foe in New Zealand’s All Blacks. The rugby scenes in the film are well shot, but lack the flow of the game. Eastwood would have done well to review 1993’s gridiron classic Rudy, which made a game that can be as fluid as molasses seem more like an unending ballet. Therein lies the problem — for a “sports film”, Invictus is mediocre. For a historical political piece, it focuses too much on sport.

Freeman’s Mandela is a fine one. Mandela himself has stated that he wished for Freeman to portray him in any film versions of his story, but with Invictus it feels as if the opportunity is squandered. The audience hardly sees Mandela in the second half of the film. The most powerful scene from the entire film comes when the Springboks visit Victor Verster Prison and Pienaar takes a moment to close the door on the cell that held Mandela for 27 years. Credit is due to Eastwood for using flashbacks in an understated way to bring Mandela and Pienaar into that small space and presenting an understanding of the strength of both men. However, the scene is a double-edged sword. Its sheer power highlights the weakness of the rest of the film and gives you the sense of lost opportunity.

Damon’s Pienaar is a convincing one, even if the accent is occasionally uneven. Australian reviewer Wayne Smith had a larger criticism towards the casting of the rest of the Springbok team: “It is not as though members of the Royal Shakespearean company were needed to handle the theatrical demands placed on the actors playing the Springboks. Basically, all that was required of them was to stand around looking racist.” Smith isn’t far off.

Smith also noted one of the biggest inaccuracies of the film — “Nelson Mandela, newly elected as president of South Africa after having been imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid government, presents Springbok captain Francois Pienaar on the eve of the World Cup with a copy of the William Henley poem ‘Invictus’ that helped sustain him during his long years in jail on Robben Island. It’s true that the poem, best known for its stirring conclusion, ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul’, did provide much solace to Mandela on the island. But it wasn’t ‘Invictus’ that he gave to Pienaar just before the tournament. Rather, it was Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘The Man in the Arena’.”