There is a strange thing about Invictus, the story of a post-apartheid South Africa coming together over the Springboks (the South African rugby team) having a chance to win the Rugby World Cup. The strange thing isn't the subject matter (which is very good). The strange thing isn't the acting (which is quite good).
No, the strange thing about Invictus is how respectful and reverential the whole thing is. I'm the first to say that former South African President Nelson Mandela is an Icon and he should be accorded all the respect and honor for his long struggle for equality for all South Africans regardless of race or color. My issue with Invictus is that this film either treats everything with a somberness befitting its 'serious subject' or takes for granted that we already know everything in the movie.
Given that Invictus revolves around rugby, a sport few Americans play, fewer understand, and almost none care about, while addressing the transition to full democracy, it is an amazingly tall order.
We get a little historical recap to bring us up to speed: in 1990 African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is finally released from prison, campaigns and is elected President of South Africa four years later. Despite being a majority-black nation, South Africa has not allowed blacks to vote, let alone become Head of State. Now, on to the movie.
The white Afrikaners are afraid that Mandela will lead the large black population towards violent reprisals and will turn South Africa into another Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). Among the Afrikaners is Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the Springboks, the rugby team beloved by the white minority but detested by the black majority as a symbol of apartheid and 'white supremacy'.
Mandela enters office with a host of problems besetting the nation, chief among them black expectations for improvement in their lives and white fears said improvements will come at a cost to their way of life (if not lives themselves). The President soon begins using his moral authority to ease South Africa into his vision for a Rainbow Nation: one where all groups can live, coexist, and even come to see themselves as one people rather than a series of peoples who happen to live in the same area.
Again and again Mandela has to nudge everyone around him to demonstrate the error of their ways. He does this by bringing in the white guards of former President DeKlerk into the Presidential security detail, infuriating his black guards until "Mandiba" (the collective nickname for Mandela among blacks) expresses it is his wish to have white guards as well as blacks to show he is President of all South Africans, not just the black President of a black South Africa.
With apartheid now gone (mercifully) South Africa is ready to re-join the community of nations. Among its first coups is the hosting of the Rugby World Cup, but Mandela is worried. He notices that most South Africans cheer for any team other than the Springboks, which will be at the very least an embarrassment to the world to see a nation actively opposing the home team. Black South Africans have a case: the Springboks are the embodiment of apartheid to them (in one good scene, a black child refuses in fear to accept a Springbok jersey from a church give-away because of its association with the former system). The South African Sports Commission has decided to exercise their rights to spoils of victory by stripping the Springboks of their colors and their name, and Mandela has to personally intercede to have them restored, advising them that this is not the time for revenge, even over something as small as sports colors.
He will use any brick available to him to build South Africa, even if it comes in green and gold.
Of course, the rugby team is nothing to brag about even if South Africa had been more inclusive before 1994. Pienaar and the rest of the Springboks (who do have a black player among them, Chester, played by McNeil Hendricks) know they suck: they are ill-equipped to play among the great rugby teams from Britain and New Zealand. Therefore, when the President of South Africa invites the Captain of the Springboks to tea, it comes as a great surprise to Pienaar.
It comes as a greater surprise when Mandela asks Pienaar to do what appears impossible: WIN the World Cup. Mandela has his reasons: he believes that if he can get the majority black population to see the Springboks as their team, it will unite the country better than a government policy or directive. Pienaar sees things the same way, believing that a sport he loves will be something that all South Africans can take pride in and start the healing process of the nation. They become an unlikely duo: the former prisoner turned President and the Afrikaner turned conscience of former oppressors.
The rugby team ain't too thrilled to be seen as propaganda, but soon they come to enjoy being ambassadors of goodwill and introducing black children to rugby (having Chester as the ace up their sleeve doesn't hurt). Mandela soon also starts pushing the idea of unity through sports, and like a drip-drip-drip the nation soon starts turning the Springboks into THE nation's team, rather than the team of PART of the nation. Even the security detail to the President starts warming to each other.
Finally, we get to the actual World Cup. Even though South Africa is the host, it is not expected to go far. Needless to say, South Africa pulled off an upset victory, and now Pienaar and Mandela were proven right to trust that sports could make 'one team, one country'.
On the whole, Invictus could have reached great levels of inspiration and been a fantastic film. However, the final product we have before is a good, functional film, but one that has some major strikes against it.
One: a title that makes the subject matter sound dry and remote.
Two: a subject that is almost completely foreign and unintelligible to American audiences. RUGBY?
Three: a treatment of the subject and characters as if they are acting out a great moment in history rather than being themselves.
We get all these flaws and missed opportunities throughout Anthony Peckham's adaptation of John Carlin's non-fiction book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation. We are given a sub-plot of the Presidential guards who now have to work together despite their misgivings of one over the other. They pop up every so often but we never get to know them as people or how they started seeing themselves as colleagues rather than competitors. By the end, we see them playing a version of rugby (the black detail not quite getting it to the degree the white detail has) and some moments where the black detail is happy the Springboks won, but it comes and goes without much to care about them.
Again and again things pop in and out but are never explored. The Pienaars have a black housekeeper who apparently even the forward-thinking Francois takes little note until he brings an extra ticket for the Big Game. His parents and wife wonder who the extra ticket is for. One guess. How that transformation or what she might have thought of all this is left unanswered.
Also left unanswered is what Chester thinks about all this. Chester is the only non-white member of the Springboks, and it's clear his teammates see him as 'one of their own', which is remarkable given the bigotry the rest of South Africa was emerging from. He also is the only player the black children know about or care about (the Jackie Robinson of South African rugby, one might say). What does the black player who plays on the symbol of apartheid think about the changes, or the President's support or ideas, or how his own experiences literally playing for both sides affect how he sees all these things?
Frankly, we don't know and don't appear to care. It's a curiosity that for a film about how a nation came together over the difficult racial divide via sports, we seem to get acres of acres of how the whites saw things but hardly if ever touched on things from the black perspective.
More problems come from Clint Eastwood's directing of the big sporting scenes. Eastwood is masterful at how he directs the actors: Freeman captured Mandela's dignity and vocal inflections brilliantly, and Damon's Afrikaner accent was completely believeable. However, for those of us not familiar with rugby, we really didn't know what was going on. We didn't know who was winning or sometimes who was on what team.
When one features a game that is relatively unknown, it is vital to have some sort of primer, and Invictus doesn't. We are left to figure out what is going on. Even worse, the matches we do see (like South Africa versus Australia) are remarkably boring and move so quickly we can't appreciate how impressive the South African victory was. We are told that New Zealand is this powerhouse, but when when do we see them play any other team (though I give them credit for showing us the Maori war dance which even the non-Maori players partook of...that's enough to intimidate just about anyone).
There is a roteness to Invictus, where the story moves along, we're told how 'important' this-that-or-the-other is, then move on to the next Great Moment.
In short, my problem with Invictus was that it was so reverential and respectful of the subject that everything around it gained this aura of "this is VERY SERIOUS, VERY IMPORTANT", and thus, sucked all the life out of the story and the characters.
I don't fault the two leads: Freeman and Damon are excellent, but for myself, Invictus is a lost opportunity: a story about a nation coming together over a symbol of oppression turned symbol of the country became an exercise in showing how we all have to marvel at the monumental steps everyone took. Invictus tries too hard to be INSPIRATIONAL rather than just BEING inspirational.