In February 1990, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is released from prison, after 27 years behind bars. As dramatized in Invictus, the moment is weighty. Mandela’s car travels a road in between two rugby fields: on one side, a crowd of skinny black boys rush to the fence and crane their necks to see him, their smiles flashing. On the other side, white players hang their heads and grimace as their coach intones, “It’s that terrorist Mandela. They let him out. This is the day this country went to the dogs.”
This scene lays the ground for Clint Eastwood’s noble endeavor. Obvious and earnest, the film dramatizes the events leading to the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament, during which Mandela gambled on sports as a means to unify his nation. Elected as president in 1994, when blacks were at long last allowed to vote, he took his governing seriously and considered his disparate constituencies carefully. “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” he pronounces on his inauguration day.
This moment too is recalled in Invictus with Freeman performing Mandela on TV. The barriers to non-skunkness are soon apparent in his own office. On his arrival, he notes that all the white employees are packing up while black staff members are moving in. As his longtime assistant Brenda (Adjoa Andoh) nods wisely and approvingly, he invites the whites to stay on, hoping to make his administration an example of his vision; likewise, he determines that his security staff should be both black and white. Just so, the film offers up a relationship between Mandela’s man Jason (Tony Kgoroge) and Etienne (Julian Lewis Jones), the white head of the erstwhile Special Branch, notorious perpetrators of violence against the anti-apartheid movement. As this relationship evolves—from haughty distrust to grumbling camaraderie—so too does the nation appear to fall in line with Mandela’s righteous purpose.
Er. Actually, the film tracks this process by focusing on one of Mandela’s cleverer schemes, to bring the populations together through sport. It so happens that the world rugby tournament is coming up in 1995, and the South Africans—the Afrikaners, anyway—have long been devoted to their Springboks, though they haven’t done much in the way of winning recently. When the ANC (African National Congress) votes to revamp the team—change the name, colors, and makeup—Mandela steps in… literally. He and Brenda and a coterie of men rush to the meeting house so the president can make his pitch, namely, that the white folks need to be invited to trust in the new government, and the symbolism of the team is huge.
The speech is moving (“Our fellow South Africans, they treasure Springboks rugby. If we take that away, we lose them, we prove we are what they thought we would be”), but his listeners look unconvinced. Cut to the ride home, as Brenda complains that he’s expending his “political capital” on unimportant battles. He knows better, of course, and the film never questions his judgments, only notes that everyone else must play catch-up.
The film doesn’t remark the problems Mandela confronted on emerging from prison, doesn’t note the ANC’s political and legal complications, much less his personal travails with his wife Winnie, unseen here and only mentioned by his angry daughter Zindzi (Bonnie Henna). It’s left to Zindzi to voice the dilemma Mandela posed for so many activists, who found forgiveness of the Afrikaners to be yet more trauma.
Ever astute, Mandela finds an Afrikaner who appreciates his capacity for forgiveness as well as his hope for the future. The Springboks’ captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon)—eager to find a reason for his team to win, apparently—is a rough and scrummish sort of fellow who spends lots of time at his parents’ house, so his dad (Patrick Lyster) can complain about the black president and Francois can ponder the consequences of racism. When the president invites him for tea, well, the whole family is dumbfounded. Francois’ wife Nerine (Marguerite Wheatley) drops him off like a schoolboy, and inside, he looks appropriately awkward in the great man’s presence, leaving utterly smitten. Yes, he will win for the president, he will win the World Cup!
The film doesn’t precisely look into how Mandela governs, noting that he has to go round to other wealthy nations—the U.S., China, and England—in search of investors. Instead it detours back around to its very first scene—the conflicting responses of the rugby players—and tracks Francois’ efforts to train up his men. No matter that they’re grumpy when directed to do extra PR work. In the midst of their preparations and matches, they head out to shanty towns where they play rugby with charming black children, earning their fandom even when a few short weeks before, the black communities were rooting for any team that wasn’t South African.
Francois has one black player on the team, the sweetly charismatic Chester Williams (McNeil Hendricks), with whom the black kids feel a helpful attachment. He becomes the team’s poster boy quite literally, his face emblazoned on the planes and buses that carry them to matches. The film doesn’t bother much to show how they practice more assiduously or rather suddenly begin to win; instead, it indicates the wins and focuses on the fans’ growing enthusiasm, in particular black South Africans’ shifting allegiance from opposing teams to the Boks. Francois ensures that his teammates follow a similar trajectory. Following his own visit to the president’s old Robben Island prison cell (where Francois has a very literal vision of Mandela bent over his book, seemingly embodying the forgiveness he advocates), Francois inspires the Boks to see themselves as representatives for a national—not a white—cause.
The focus on rugby grants the film a simple-seeming metaphor for the political complexities of Mandela’s first years in office. Though a couple of scenes indicate that he was at risk of assassination and physical ailments (he was 72 when he got out of prison, 76 when he was elected president), for the most part he stands apart from the action, watching games on TV while doing his government work, choppering in for a quick pre-tournament visit with the team, writing out by hand the poem, “Invictus,” that he tells Francois helped him persevere against odds). While Mandela observes from afar, the team inspires a version of the national unity he seeks to build elsewhere.
As a metaphor, rugby brings its own set of expectations and complications. Recalling the adage that “Football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs and rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen,” the film focuses on the sport’s brutal aspects. On the field, men grunt and kick and slam into one another; with no pads or helmets, they are bloodied and bruised. With the camera close and low on the scrums and scrambling to keep up with limbs churning into end zones, Invictus underscores that integration is grueling work.