(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, McNiel Hendricks, Louis Minaar, Zak Feaunati. Directed by Clint Eastwood
History has a habit of landing turning points in the most unlikely of moments. Years of apartheid in South Africa led to a mistrust and even hatred between the white Afrikaners and native Africans of South Africa once apartheid was dismantled in 1990. Uniting the two separate nations into one would be the task of newly-elected President Nelson Mandela and it wouldn’t be an easy one. Still, who knew that it would all hinge on the outcome of a rugby match?
One of the symbols of apartheid had been the national rugby team, also known as the Springboks. Their symbol of a leaping Springbok (a kind of horned gazelle) and their colors of green and gold were anathema to many South African blacks. Nelson Mandela (Freeman) himself proclaimed that while incarcerated that he and his fellow prisoners would root for “anybody who played against the Springboks” as they were so cherished by the Afrikaners and it would upset his jailers. His fellow oppressed Africans felt much the same.
Times had changed significantly however; apartheid was a thing of the past and Mandela was the newly-elected president of South Africa. Rugby, considered a sport of the whites, is now overseen by the South African Sport Council which is ready to retire the Springbok and change the symbol and colors of the team to the Protean, a South African flower. The new president is against this change, much to the chagrin of his loyal chief of staff Brenda (Andoh). He intuitively – and correctly – understands that abolishing the Springboks would be the kind of thing that would feed the fear of the white Afrikaners who felt their nation was being taken away from them. If there was any hope of reconciliation and unification between both sides, the Springboks would have to be a part of it.
To that end Mandela decided to meet with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) over tea. While it is explicitly unsaid, the meaning is clear enough; winning the Rugby World Cup, to be hosted by South Africa in 1995, would go a long way towards unifying all South Africans together as one nation.
Pienaar buys in. His parents (Minaar and Downie) are somewhat skeptical, as his girlfriend Nerine (Wheatley) is. So are Mandela’s bodyguards – particularly the stern, by-the-book Jason (Kgoroge) who balks at having former secret policemen like Etienne Feyder (Jones) in his detail. These were, he reasoned quite correctly, the sort of men who dragged his countrymen out of their beds in the middle of the night to take them to jail – or to improvised executions, their bodies to be left for the various fauna of the land to dispose of for them.
The task of winning the World Cup is not an easy one. South Africa had been persona non grata in the sporting world during the era of apartheid and was only just recently becoming integrated back into the world sports arena. The Springboks, once a dominant side, had struggled as they returned to international play. Most pundits picked them to finish near the bottom of the tournement. Pienaar and his mates knew however that they were fighting for more than a cup. They were fighting to keep their nation intact. Even should they prevail against all odds and reach the final, they would be facing a New Zealand All-Blacks club led by Jonah Lomu (Feaunati), the best player in the world.
Eastwood and writer Anthony Peckham (himself a South African who knows the era well) wisely shift the focus from the rugby squad itself to Mandela, allowing Freeman – a personal friend of the South African leader and the only choice to play him, as Freeman has been attempting to get a biography made for decades – to shine. This is one of the best performances for the actor in a distinguished career and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe. He richly deserves an Oscar nomination and should be one of the leading candidates for one when they are announced early next year.
Damon is solid (having also garnered a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor) in a role that requires him to essentially be noble and heroic. The denouement of the movie depicts an event that is widely believed to be a turning point towards the reconciliation of the South African nation.
There are many emotional moments in the movie, from the Springboks going to a black township to teach the children rugby and interacting with the children (after initial resistance on many of the team’s part) to a moment when Pienaar and the rest of his teammates visit the Robben Island penitentiary where Mandela was jailed for 30 years (they use the actual location, including Mandela’s actual cell) in what is called a game-changer.
This is an inspiring movie on every count. Yes, rugby lies at the center of the movie but it is only as a metaphor; knowing or not knowing the rules will make little difference to your enjoyment of the movie (and enough of the game is explained during the teaching sequences that you have at least a light grasp of the sport). Leaving the theater, you feel a sense that anything is possible, and that’s a great feeling to have leaving anything.
Clint Eastwood has hit another home run with this movie and while it isn’t finding extreme box office success, chances are it will be around long enough to gather in enough box office cash to be profitable. In any case, this is definitely one movie likely to be on my year-end list of ten best movies – see it if you possibly can.
REASONS TO GO: Freeman’s Oscar-worthy performance puts a human face on one of the 20th Century’s most iconic figures. Even if you don’t know much about rugby you can still love this movie. A very inspiring two hours.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets a bit preachy at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Very suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “invictus” is Latin for unconquerable and is the root of the word “invincible.” It is the title of a poem written in 1875 by William Ernest Henry, a British poet who was stricken with tuberculosis of the bone at the time and was in the hospital to have his foot amputated due to the disease. Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper that he would refer to from time to time during his incarceration for comfort. Although Mandela is portrayed as giving the poem to Pienaar prior to the World Cup finals, it was actually a speech by Theodore Roosevelt that was sent.
HOME OR THEATER: The rugby sequences are definitely better on the big screen to get a sense of proportion for the stadiums the games were played in – otherwise most of the film would fit nicely on the small screen.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill Begins
NOTE: Check back later today as we will have the 2010 Preview up for your enjoyment.