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Bloody but Unbowed: Invictus

I don’t think American audiences are going to learn much from Clint Eastwood’s Invictus about the game of rugby (including the curious, intimate, manly, brute-force massing of players known as the scrum that initiates each team’s drive toward the opponent’s goalposts). And that, I also think, sums up the limitations on this film’s appeal. Rugby is a sporting passion foreign to most Americans, and their interest in and knowledge of South Africa—the movie’s setting—are almost certainly slight.

The two things Invictus has going for it are the use of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) as its central character and its underdog sports story. Americans like against-all-odds athletic tales. Even so, I think it may be something of a hard sell. Hoosiers this isn’t.

Invictus’ script was adapted by Hollywood writer and South African expat Anthony Peckham from British journalist John Carlin’s book about a historically momentous World Cup rugby series in 1995. Mandela, recently elected as his country’s first black and post-apartheid president, was casting about for something symbolic he could use to diminish the fearful and angry divisions between the minority white and majority black races in the country, to help forge some sense of national unity. He hit upon the tactic of turning the national rugby team, the Springboks, for blacks a despised symbol of the sometimes brutally repressive old order, into an instrument of national reconciliation and rebirth.

The most economically effective sequence in the movie is the opening one, in which the camera rises over a scene of antagonistic social and racial dichotomy: A team of uniformed white boys is practicing rugby on a grassy playing field, while across a roadway a ragtail group of skinny black kids kicks around a soccer ball on a dusty expanse. When a line of cars roars by, the blacks rush to a fence to cheer, and the white boys’ coach tells them disdainfully that it was the “terrorist” Mandela, just released from prison, and that the country will soon “go to the dogs.” This is hardly nuanced, but very little else in the movie is, and it works. In fact, the first 20 minutes or so move along propitiously, until Invictus gets into its rather straightline narrative groove, where it mostly stays for about another 110 minutes.

That story line has an earnest, vaguely dutiful quality. The source of the movie’s title conveys a lot about the film’s tone and direction. It’s also the title of William Henley’s famous inspiriting Victorian poem, a work that the movie’s Mandela copies out and gives to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springboks. The president tells the younger man that he committed it to memory during his 27-year imprisonment (for conspiracy to commit paramilitary attacks against the regime) and that he hopes it will help steel his will as it did Mandela’s.

This point is driven home in a blunt and somewhat awkward but not entirely unaffecting episode in which Pienaar and his teammates visit the island prison where Mandela was held and the rugby captain tries to imagine the prisoner’s existence.

The movie’s dominating presence is Freeman’s, and it’s really all hung on his performance. Carlin and New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, who both covered South Africa in the 1990s, have professed admiration for Freeman’s accomplishment, and from my less privileged vantage, the performance seems expert. But there’s scarcely any competition or complement in any of the others, a lack mostly originating in the script and the direction. The movie’s use of Damon must be one of the most perfunctory opportunities ever given a major performer. His Pienaar is colorless and earnest, like much of the rest of the film. Tony Kgoroge, in the less important role of the head of the president’s security detail, has more personality and energy in his scenes.

Invictus tells its story well enough, if rather conventionally, and it’s one that probably bears telling. It certainly does nothing to diminish Mandela’s highly esteemed persona, and it manages to bring him a little closer to human dimensions. (What it leaves out—the growing gap between haves and have-nots, the madly foolish refusal of Mandela’s successor, Thebo Mbeki, to support anti-AIDS measures, the continuing discrimination against blacks in rugby circles—probably lies beyond the film’s scope.)

The real importance of Invictus probably is found in the unlikelihood of there being another American movie portrait of one of the last century’s most remarkable people. It provides one, and there are lots of less creditable motivations for moviemaking.

Watch the trailer for Invictus

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