South Africa was on the brink of civil war in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was not the start of the troubles – he had been in prison for decades for fighting the institutional racism of apartheid – but it sparked racial tension and aggression between blacks and whites. Racism is the ugliness that lived in the beautiful country, and the dark backdrop of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. From an opening montage of new footage, both archival and recreated, the divided society is perfectly captured and portrayed throughout the film.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
All the great sports films share certain elements: rousing speeches, victory from the jaws of defeat, and engaging on-field action. Invictus has all of these attributes in its starting line-up, but it is the other cornerstone of the sport genre which Invictus has so strongly that one begins to question where this film belongs – a powerful metaphor.
The dual narrative between statesmanship and sport is so interwoven that you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a film about rugby where the message is political. This is the other way around – Invictus is a powerful movie about the political genius of Mandela and how he played his game through world-class rugby. The unreconcilable society placed his presidency on top of a tinderbox, and this is the film that shows how Mandela turned a starkly black-and-white South Africa into the Rainbow Nation.
Unlike other Mandela biopics, Invictus works within a tight timescale. By leaving his long walk to freedom behind and focussing solely on the single year between Mandela’s inauguration as President and the first kick-off in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, this story offers as much insight into the man and his achievements as other films can muster over his lifetime.
One year until the World Cup; one year to convert a nation and embed reconciliation. To achieve this, the South African rugby team – the Springboks – would have to perform very well indeed, preferably becoming champions. Unfortunately, the team is in no shape to compete internationally and the black population hate rugby, cheering for the opposition if they take any interest at all. The division of the country is given some insightful imagery in Invictus through rugby fandom. On the one hand, a stadium filled with Springbok supporters is the only place we see Mandela where the booing drowns out the cheers, and on the other, an impoverished black township child refuses a new shirt because it is a Springbok top.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
To achieve his sporting ambition, Mandela enlists the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar to lead their team to victory. There is no special training or tactical secret to account for the Springboks’ vastly improved rugby; instead, the game-changer is inspirational leadership and a sense of political necessity. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon inhabit their roles with the charisma we have come to expect of these excellent actors.
Freeman was Mandela’s own choice to portray him, and the former President should have taken a career as a casting director after his retirement. Freeman is perfect casting – he is Mandela in speech, mannerism, and look. From political scheming to a victorious wiggle-dance, you believe you are seeing the world-renowned man himself on screen. Damon is playing a less well-known real-life character, but his are a safe pair of hands. His film presence starts in earnest with a toast to the taste of defeat and builds alongside his mentorship from Mandela. The pure leadership he embodies as he first stands apart from his team’s apartheid attitude and then brings them around to the new way of thinking is entirely convincing.
The rugby is exciting whether you are a lifelong fan or have never seen a match before; the viewer feels the crunch, wills the team to score. This is essential, and is fully supported by a clever mix of camera angles. Switching between in-the-action close-ups, following the ball down the line or as the ball looking up at the scrum, and wide shots, which sweep overhead and up to see the cheering stadiums, we see the match both as player and spectator. The obligatory wet match, mud flying and hard blows sliding, is particularly beautiful.
Eastwood’s son Kyle collaborated with Michael Stevens to compose an accomplished score and soundtrack, mixing tribal and traditional South African music with stately, dramatic string movements. The standout track is ‘9000 Days’, featuring the South African a cappella group Overtone, which entrancingly blends the words to the poem ‘Invictus’ with the Nelson Mandela story. This poem features throughout the film as a source of inspiration for Mandela and Pienaar, and the only time it is read in full is a powerful voiceover by Freeman as the Springboks tour Robben Island.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
Invictus is an unabashed history lesson, justifying exposition with the importance of its message. Where detractors may see some scenes overplaying certain events or extending scenes, the eye-opening first visit the Springboks make to a township and the mind-expanding explanation of Mandela’s defence of the hated team kit and anthem before a sports committee are expertly played; whilst they may slow the pace, they build the significance of the events that are to come.
Eastwood’s direction works on similar lines. Statesmanly, elegant and graceful, this is a film which exceeds expectations and is hungry for greatness. The imagery he creates is a memorable testament to the achievements portrayed on film, whether it is the empty township streets during the World Cup final or the evolving relationships between blacks and whites. Invictus may not have as much brain as Moneyball, but it is overflowing with heart and courage. Eastwood created a feel-good film about the end of apartheid, and for that Invictus deserves to be loved.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.