Poetic victory


POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

With his customary visual economy, director Clint Eastwood establishes the visceral impact of apartheid in the first five seconds of “;Invictus.”; That's all it takes.

Along with “;District 9,”; this is the second major film this year to address the legacy of South Africa's legalized racism of apartheid. Perhaps the time has come to look back. Where the other film used the arch medium of science fiction, “;Invictus”; uses, of all things, the true-story sports genre. You know, win the big game against all—and bigger—odds, learn teamwork, use what you learn on the field to improve your daily life, be an inspiration whilst remaining modest.

The usual stuff.

Unlike “;The Blind Side”; and other true-story sports tales, the reality of the story isn't here simply as an excuse to entertain us. What occurs in “;Invictus”; is the real deal. The sports subject is the movie, not the selling point. Because of that, it's hugely entertaining and genuinely uplifting, and reaches out far beyond the rough-and-tumble fans of international rugby.

        Rated: PG-13
        Opens today in theaters

Yeah, rugby. The most macho game in the world. When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the mid-'90s, the nation's Springboks team—the Bokke—were beloved by white Afrikaans and pretty much ignored by the nation's restive black population, who saw the team as a hangover of white rule. Afrikaans imagined their country and culture being taken away by the newly enfranchised blacks.

It didn't help that the Springboks were in the midst of a demoralizing losing streak.

Mandela, who had spent nearly three decades jailed as the political head of a “;terrorist”; organization, saw in the Springboks a way of having these rapidly polarizing sides come together. Not just come together, but cheer together. He befriended Bokke captain Francois Pienaar and offered advice on leadership styles and morale. That including sharing the short Victorian poem by William Ernest Henley that gives the film its title, which Henley wrote upon his deathbed. “;Invictus”; is Latin for “;unconquered,”; and the poem concludes:

“;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.”;

I shall not offer spoilers, unless, of course, you remember how the 1995 World Cup came out as South Africa matched up against the fearsome New Zealand team. The pleasures in the film are all about the delicate dance Mandela does to guide his terribly divided nation into the future.

On occasion, Eastwood overdoes it with the “;message”; soundtrack tunes, and Matt Damon isn't given a lot to do as Pienaar except to look buff and nod in wonder as Mandela surprises him. It's a bluff, stolid performance, and he does well.

“;Invictus”; belongs entirely to Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. As an African-American, Freeman does something quite marvelous: He ceases to be an American and becomes an African, right down to the tiniest of gestures. It's an amazing, canny performance and reminds us that inspiration is partly perspiration—it takes a real student of the human condition to lead others.