Invictus deals with two subjects alien to many Americans: African politics and rugby. After seeing it, I felt I understood just a bit more… about African politics. Rugby remains a complete mystery to me. It still seems like a bunch of drunk farm boys trying to steal someone’s chickens. I firmly believe it was invented in a courtroom to explain to a judge why the defendants had been chasing each other through the mud in their underwear.
Whatever its origins, the game served Nelson Mandela’s purposes in helping to unite his deeply divided nation. The film begins as the anti-apartheid activist (Morgan Freeman) is released from prison and quickly ascends to the presidency of post-apartheid South Africa, a nation awash in suspicion and bitterness. A wary white minority is bracing itself for reprisals from a newly empowered black majority.
In apartheid-era South Africa, the sport of rugby and the national team, the Springboks, had been hated symbols of white oppression, but Mandela is canny enough to see a powerful symbol of continuity in the leader of the new black South Africa embracing the favored sport of the old white power structure. To that end, he reaches out to the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), with a simple but daunting mission: South Africa must win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which the nation is hosting. This is no small task, given that South Africa is anything but a feared powerhouse in the world of international rugby.
Pienaar is shown coming from what must be a fairly typical white middle-class South African family. His father is the product of a previous generation that grew up in the old South Africa where white dominance was a dependable as the sunrise, and is openly contemptuous and suspicious of Mandela. François’ generation grew up is a world where South Africa was an international pariah for its apartheid racial policies. Perhaps weary of this outcast status, he is open to trying something new. When he visits Mandela’s old prison cell, he is visibly struck how a man who endured so much can be so ready to forgive those who imprisoned him. Matt Damon disappears seamlessly into this role, unselfishly ceding the majority of the stage to Freeman.
The story follows two other connected threads. Mandela forcibly integrates his security detail, compelling his black bodyguards, longtime members of the ANC, to reluctantly work side-by-side with the old president’s equally reluctant security guards. Also, Mandela’s own political team begins to worry that the president is becoming so obsessed with the rugby team that he’s neglecting the bigger picture, not realizing that perhaps he sees it better than they do.
Long before this movie, Morgan Freeman had been tagged as the perfect actor to play Mandela (and President Mandela had been among those expressing that opinion), and teamed again with the sure but almost invisible hand of director Clint Eastwood, Freeman delivers a finely-tuned performance to match those expectations. Invictus may not be the all-encompassing Mandela biopic that some had hoped for, but it may be stronger for it.
By focusing on a single key aspect of his administration, the film is ably to crystallize exactly what makes this man genuinely worthy of the global admiration he enjoys, far better than a film of a more epic scale similar to that of Ghandi. The Mandela of Invictus is several parts beatific benevolence and equal parts canny political operator, who understands better than those around him the power of symbolism, such as the sight of Nelson Mandela, former political prisoner, wearing a Springbok jersey on the pitch of the Rugby World Cup.
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.