Why are major sporting events—huge productions that require massive costs in terms of capital and labor just to pull of their basic function as athletic contests—constantly burdened with all kinds of additional expectations? If a country is hosting an Olympics, as China did in the summer of 2008, the games’ success will generally be seen as an indicator of that nation’s current political and economical prestige (or lack thereof). If a country is hosting the World Cup Finals, international soccer’s highest level of competition, its football team gets an automatic-bye and all of a sudden thinks it has a chance at beating out top-seeded rivals, in the process perhaps inspiring its country’s population to forget their differences in the interest of national pride.
It’s a lot of hope to place on a series of 90-minute games that took years to plan and organize but will be over within a month. Just look at South Africa, hosts of the 2010 Cup, whose citizens actually seem to think they’ll see their team go far in this tournament, despite the fact that the low-ranked South Africans will have to face powerhouses like France before they can even think about getting out of their division.
Then again, South Africans have more reason than most to believe that their underdogs can put together a victory. Their national hero, Nelson Mandela, sat in jail cells for 27 years before he was released and, in short order, elected president of the nation. There’s a precedent in the sports world as well, as South Africa is the country that saw it’s generally hopeless national rugby team, the Springboks, make it all the way to the finals when they hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. At a time when the tensions of the apartheid era of racial-segregation were a very recent memory, the exploits of the mostly-white Springboks and the open support they received from their black president seemed to bridge some of the racial divides that had seemed so uncrossable only a few years before.
At least that’s the point Clint Eastwood tries to make in Invictus, a movie which focuses on the lives of Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) leading up to and during the team’s run at the Cup in 1995. Eastwood makes the deeply-etched divisions that split South African society in the early-‘90s as apparent as possible, giving his enlightened audiences plenty of racist quips from old, white Africans (who don’t recognize that history has turned against them) to shake their heads at.
Then there is Mandela, a man who has suffered more at the hands of apartheid than most, and yet is willing to forgive and forget rather than seek revenge. There is also Pienaar, who comes from a privileged white background but—as played by Damon—has the kind of boyish good-looks and quiet seriousness that let everyone know he’s not going to be dismissing the new black government, composed mostly of former political prisoners, as quickly as his family and teammates seem to.
Like the vast majority of sports movies, Invictus follows a predictable path (even if an audience doesn’t know the actual result of the real-life finals, they’ll be pretty sure of it long before the close, final game against New Zealand’s All-Blacks comes to its conclusion). Eastwood’s real job here is to make sure a somewhat standard redemption story doesn’t lose it’s inspirational power even when transferred from the real world to the big screen.
He succeeds at that for much of the film, although there are some egregious missteps (including several moments when the score is a little to insistent in explaining to the audience what they should be feeling. The soundtrack includes a frequently utilized song called “Colorblind,” for example). Eastwood, however, seems to have a knack for making good films in spite of what should be fatal shortcomings in the production (remember those poor amateur “actors” in Gran Torino?), and with Invictus he succeeds partially through sketching in all the right details.
Mandela’s obsession with his plan to unite the country by getting soccer-loving black Africans to watch their white neighbors’ favorite game seems a little silly when you realize that he probably should be doing what his aides keep telling him and pay more attention to the country’s economic woes, but watching his black bodyguards bond with the white security agents (who were part of a police force which terrorized black activists under apartheid) as they all come to root for their national team is touching, and feels real rather than exploitative and melodramatic.
For a film about a rugby match, though, Invictus is not overly concerned with the details of the game itself. There is just enough information given to let non-rugby fans know what the hell is going on, and so just enough to make the sports-event-as-social-struggle metaphor effective. Still, the in-game action is filmed rather well, as is most of the film. Eastwood, like many film-makers setting their movies in South Africa, likes to capture the way the sun washes through the landscape, often to the point that skin-tone is hard to discern.
Another visual asset is Freeman’s physical resemblance to Mandela. Really, who else could have played the world’s most revered living humanitarian other than the man who is the first-choice of directors wanting an actor who exemplifies unquestionable wisdom (he was once cast as God in Bruce Almighty). Damon doesn’t look quite as much like the real Pienaar, but otherwise does a decent job with a somewhat archetypal character, and manages to pull off a convincing-enough Afrikaans accent.
Probably the biggest criticism that can be leveled against Invictus comes from South Africa’s history in the 15 years since this event took place. The country is still plagued by violence, disparate wealth gaps and issues defining its multi-racial national identity. Blacks, whites, and everyone else may have joined together to support the Springboks, but non-Caucasian South Africans still face huge problems overcoming the depressive influence of years of institutionalized inequality, leading to everything from widespread crime to problems controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS. Racism continues, thanks to grudges still held by the formerly-segregated non-white population, and the mistaken conclusion among some white South Africans that the current ills of society are proof that everything really was better when they were the ones in control.
On the other hand, South Africa’s story is a plot that is still ongoing, while Invictus tells the tale of a specific point in time, when a society ravaged by decades of injustice actually managed to overcome differences to rally around a single cause. Even if one rugby competition didn’t make everyone colorblind (there’s that word again) overnight, Invictus makes it easy to see why South Africans today might hold out hope that the impossible could happen—again.
The Blu-Ray release of Invictus comes with a hefty selection of extra features, including documentaries on the production, rugby, and Eastwood himself. There’s also a nifty picture-in-picture feature that lets the viewer get a lot more additional content while watching the film than they would with a regular audio commentary.