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Invictus deftly juggles politics and rugby in a story of hope and liberation.

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After spending the bulk of 27 years confined to a tiny Spartan cell, branded by some as a “terrorist” and incarcerated for anti-establishment activities, a man is released from prison. He begins communicating with a South African rugby team captain. It’s 1990; one man is black, the other white. Against all odds, they manage to inspire each other, the entire rugby team, and the nation as the team goes to the 1995 World Cup.

This isn’t the setup for a cheesy sports movie like Goal! The Dream Begins. The captain’s name is Francois Pienaar. The released man is Nelson Mandela. And this is a true story, told with a little Hollywood flair courtesy of Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Just as many assert rock ‘n’ roll can change the world, so can the power of sports, particularly sports with a truly global appeal played on the world stage. The World Series of baseball doesn’t quite qualify. But soccer (or futbol) and rugby, in their respective World Cups, take in much larger audiences. And therein lies the message of Invictus – and Nelson Mandela; it’s about people rallying together, finding common ground in a popular entertainment, and, as was particularly on Mandela’s mind, putting their best foot forward as a metamorphosing South Africa exited its cocoon of apartheid.

Fast Sport, Slow Burn

Following collaborations on Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, director Eastwood reunites with Morgan Freeman, who delivers a remarkable facsimile of Mandela. The classic “good man” personified, he takes the high road at every opportunity and builds bridges even with those who previously would rather have blown up the bridge.

based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, South African native Anthony Peckham’s screenplay gets off to a slow start slow while the players get put in place. There’s Mandela, moving in to his office as the newly-elected president (in South Africa’s first free election, no less). There’s Pienaar (Matt Damon, The Informant!), captain of the Springboks, an underdog rugby club seen by blacks as a symbol of apartheid’s oppression.

Slowly but surely, though, the movie works its magic. There’s talk about forgiveness liberating soul, and that’s backed up with a moving scene in which the Springboks team tours Mandela’s old prison cell on Robben Island. That’s when it becomes all the more evident that it’s also about walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Green Shirts & a Rainbow Nation

Invictus, meaning unconquered, takes its title from an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley. The poem served as a source of inspiration to Mandela while he was held in confinement and, at least in this telling, it’s also a poem he passed along to Pienaar to inspire the team.

As a sort of sanction against apartheid, South Africa spent years banned from participating in international competition. Given that setting, the Springboks were regarded as underdogs in their pursuit of the World Cup. Unaccustomed to competing at that level, naturally expectations were low.

But that was also a concept Mandela — and the Springboks — firmly grasped: They needed to exceed expectations and, by uniting an entire country around rooting for a team that once symbolized something so hated, they became an unlikely new symbol for the new Rainbow Nation.

That melding of formerly contradictory concepts and alliances is mirrored in Eastwood’s movie; it’s a story of grace told amid the brutal on-field action of rugby.

  • Michelle Wong: thought you might be interested in a related new documentary,Fair Play, which explain why the ‘95 World Cup was so important to Mandela and the world. Here’s a trailer: http://activevoice.net/haveyouheard_fairplay.html. January 17, 2010 reply