Rating: 3.5 out of 5
I always look forward to a Clint Eastwood movie. His films aren’t all excellent (though many of them are), but they’re always complex, well put-together, and driven by a passionate social conscience.
With Invictus, Eastwood – a Hollywood veteran who has acted in nearly 70 films and directed half as many – doesn’t disappoint.
Written by Anthony Peckham (bouncing back from the abysmal Sherlock Holmes), the movie is unusual in both its subject and form; it’s a hybrid of the political biopic and the sports film.
The setting is mid-1990s South Africa. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, sagely with a crucial streak of mischief) has been elected the nation’s first black president, and presides over a poverty-stricken country still bristling from the traumas of apartheid.
Much work needs to be done to rebuild the country’s ravaged economy and floundering international relations.
But Mandela, much to his staff’s initial bafflement, seems more concerned about getting the national rugby team, the Springboks, to win the forthcoming Rugby World Cup – hosted in South Africa – than with important matters of state.
Only as the film unfolds does it become clear that as Mandela sees it, rugby is an important matter of state. He wants to use the sport as a platform for racial accord and national conciliation.
To call this a quixotic task in post-apartheid South Africa is to make a gross understatement. Most blacks would rather support their country’s opponents than cheer for the Springboks, seen as a symbol of oppression and white supremacy.
Risking no small amount of political cachet, Mandela commits himself to revamping the image – as well as the attitude – of the Afrikaner-dominated Springboks.
By sheer force of personality, he urges the country’s National Sports Council to endorse, rather than abolish, the colours and emblem of the Springboks.
He woos the Springbok team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, impeccable as a disciplined South African jock), and persuades the players to interrupt their training schedule to conduct rugby workshops in the townships.
In time, mindsets are changed. We know the ending of this movie as a historical fact: South Africa does overcome the odds to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Cape Town, and the sport does become a unifying force in the South African cultural fabric.
But at no point does this result seem certain in Eastwood’s movie. Despite its emphatic title (‘invictus’ is Latin for ‘unconquerable’), the film never forgets just how deep prejudices can run. Bonds between men are as difficult to forge as rugby games are hard to win.
That’s what makes Mandela’s and Pienaar’s victory all the more significant. Eastwood’s depiction of their triumph is filled with poetry and pathos.
After last year’s lacklustre Gran Torino, Eastwood has returned with a fine film, driven by a tough, humanist spirit. An Oscar nomination or three would come as no surprise.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).