Invictus may not be as popular as this year’s bigger holiday releases, but its poignant themes of justice and peace are both entertaining and redemptive.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus has generated lots of buzz as a potential Oscar contender, and rightly so. But it’s unfortunate that bigger films like Avatar and Sherlock Holmes are drawing more attention from audiences, because Invictus presents a story that’s both entertaining and transformative.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island’s maximum-security prison after 27 years as a political prisoner whose only crime was resisting South Africa’s unjust apartheid laws. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. In 1995, he began to reconcile his country through peace, justice, selflessness, and rugby.
Director Eastwood utilizes the superb talents of Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar) to adapt John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation to the silver screen.
Make no mistake — Invictus is an inspirational sports film. Those hoping for an epic history of Nelson Mandela’s trials and triumphs in office or a deep commentary on South Africa in 1995 will be disappointed. The film paints a decent background of South Africa in the mid-1990s and Eastwood and Freeman intentionally refrain from painting an idyllic picture of Mandela, but these are supportive elements for a story about reconciliation and the power of humility.
Noticing the brokenness of his country, Mandela views the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, as an opportunity to promote a unified national pride. Mandela understands that the Afrikaners (White South Africans) are afraid of his administration and fear exile from a country that has become their home. Instead of exploiting his new position as an office of domination and vengeance, Mandela acts humbly and selflessly. Mandela calls the nation to seek peace not by changing their colors or the name of the Springboks. Rather, he asks his fellow Black citizens, who spent years viewing the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, to embrace the team as their own.
The title “Invictus” (Latin for inconquerable) comes from the poem by William Ernest Henley. Mandela drew strength from Henley’s triumphant text while in prison, and he sends a handwritten copy of the poem to Pienaar to inspire him to lead South Africa’s team to the world championship. The eventual national embrace of the team transforms a symbol of division, racism, and hatred into a symbol of a “Rainbow Nation” growing towards reconciliation.
The film rightly shows the historical racism and domination of many White South Africans, but it does not do so with a broad brush and addresses the danger of Black South Africans harboring anger and desiring retaliation. This is good. Eastwood, however, errs on the side of making the White South Africans too innocent and weakens the magnitude of the reconciliation that follows. It is too easy to forget that Nelson Mandela was blessed compared to other civil rights advocates who died at the hands of a White South African government. South Africa was — and is — reconciling and recovering from a very brutal system of hatred, abuse, and murder; it is important not to forget the harshness of reality.
In a poignant scene, Pienaar and his teammates travel to Robben Island and view the cells in which many Black South Africans, including Mandela, were held. The weight of the prison intoxicates Pienaar. He sees the work yards, touches the steel bars, and encloses himself in Mandela’s former cell. Pienaar feels the sense of entrapment and dehumanization that permeates a prison. Overcome with the severity of apartheid, a system he lived within but simply accepted as status quo, and realizing the gravitas of Mandela, he remarks in genuine awe: “I was thinking how a man could spend 30 years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him?”
Mandela and Pienaar must take up courage to engage the task before them. Mandela, in a position of political power and influence, takes it upon himself to refute the temptation of revenge and put down fear. He reaches out to a person who was once his enemy and asks him to participate in something larger than either of them. Pienaar, filled with uncertainty, takes the risk to trust Mandela and reexamines the system he had believed to be true and just. He becomes a symbol and representative not only for Afrikaans, but also for the 43,000,000 South Africans of all races, all of whom are trying to discover their role in the new nation.
Based on a True Story: Freeman and Damon in Invictus (left), and the real-life Mandela and Pienaar.
Mandela and Pienaar are archetypes of reconciliation, not because they are perfect, but because they are real people. Mandela has failed marriages and a disappointing family life that mark his past. Pienaar benefited from the inhuman structure of apartheid. Yet, despite their missteps, regrets, and blotted histories, their humility in 1995 was driven by their Christian faith and understanding of biblical reconciliation.
For a film that was destined to garner Oscar talk, Invictus is surpringly grounded. Clint Eastwood does not burden his movie with sappy, self-important filmmaking. The film is straightforward, somewhat predictable, and the cinematography is rather ordinary. But, on the other hand, Eastwood does not waste any film in the telling of this extraordinary story. The film’s simplicity is engaging.
Freeman’s depiction of Mandela is noteworthy. Although Freeman is much taller than Mandela and does not quite master a clean Black South African accent, the profundity of his performance emulates the spirit of Mandela. Likewise, Matt Damon becomes immersed in his powerful and earnest portrayal of Pienaar; it is easy to forget that Damon is only playing a role.
As with any movie “based on a true story,” some of aspects of Invictus are fictionalized for the sake of the silver screen. Mandela’s involvement with the Springbok was not as calculated as the film displays and it was after the match that Mandela and Francois Pienaar became friends. However, this poetic license does not detract from the purpose of the story.
Invictus may not win any Oscars — although Damon, Eastwood, and Freeman have been nominated for Golden Globes — but it is a substantial film nonetheless. There is enough action to keep the film moving and enough drama to maintain a salient theme. The film is suitable for teenagers and adults and asks its audience — especially its Christian viewers — to find their role in reconciling a world of broken nations, broken people, and broken hearts.