“My Head Is Bloody But Unbowed” By TK | Film Reviews | December 14, 2009 |
In August of 1984, my parents, being of mixed race, active members of the then-illegal African National Congress (ANC), and somewhat prescient, packed my sister and I up and fled South Africa, emigrating to Massachusetts, where we had briefly lived once before. Eleven months after we left, a State of Emergency would be declared, and the already harsh and repressive government took steps to stifle speech and further curtail black and coloured rights. I was 10 years old. In 1993, my mother and I went back to visit our much-missed family. The day after we arrived, the leader of the South African Communist Party (also an illegal party) was assassinated, sending the country into further turmoil. I was 17 years old for that.
I mention this not for the sake of nostalgia, but to give a sense of what the world was like for South Africans, both abroad and at home, back in those tumultuous days. I remember when Nelson Mandela was released from prison; my parents, sister, and my mother's sister's family were all huddled in our living room, transfixed by the television, tears in our eyes. Two thoughts went through our heads as that gray-haired figure finally stepped into the camera's eye: "My God, I can't believe I'm seeing this," and, "My God, please don't let him get assassinated." These thoughts are inevitable when, for the majority of your life, your home government has made a practice of such things, and when your leaders have spent their lives behind bars.
The rift that tore open South Africa as a result of Apartheid was a deep, jagged gash. It started decades ago, and it exists today. The dynamics of it have changed, for sure, but the wound is still raw and parts of it still fester. But every day, one hopes, things get a little better. Some days things get worse.
But some days ... some days are like June 24, 1995.
Invictus, released last week, is directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team (called the Springboks, or "bokke"). It tells the story of how Mandela, showing remarkable political savvy, worked with Pienaar to try to bring the country together by championing the rugby team, and how Pienaar eventualy lead his team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I'll leave it to Dustin's review (which I confess I deliberately haven't read yet), to give you the fuller synopsis. The film is good, though not great, but it's worth mentioning that it's always difficult for me to review films about South Africa fairly and impartially. The acting in Invictus is certainly top-notch, although Freeman's accent was probably the weakest in the film. Damon nailed his, though that's no surprise. The man's a chameleon, and with his brawny physique and generically handsome blond looks, he's perfect for the part.
Of course, we -- my family and I -- always get frustrated when Americans are cast as South Africans, when we know there are quality South African actors out there (especially in the wake of District 9), and that resentment was still present as I watched Invictus. While much of the supporting cast was comprised of genuine South Africans, seeing the leads go to Americans inevitably smarts a bit, regardless of how good a job they may do. Of course, we also realize the realities of the situation -- unless you're making a movie about alien invasions, it's unlikely you're going to do much business at the box office (the brilliant Tsotsi is the perfect example of that, a fantastic film that no one saw). But, with Eastwood directing and Damon Freeman's names on the posters, you'll definitely fill a few more seats.
That quibble aside, the film is certainly an enjoyable one. Filmed on location in Cape Town (the town I was born in), it's hard for me to not be emotionally affected by it. Every shot of Table Mountain, every pan through the desolate townships, makes me swallow a little harder than usual, and makes the room seem a little dustier. It's inevitable -- hence my difficulty with impartiality. I will say this though -- the cinematography in Invictus is stunning. It's an easy country to film in some respects, given its abundance of natural beauty as well as abject poverty, but it still takes a skilled lensman to weave it together cohesively, and Invictus has a real sense of life to it, of time and place captured perfectly. Similarly, costume design is painstakingly perfect, both for the country and the time. Every article of clothing, every maid's apron and soldier's boot is a flawless representation of those moments in time.
My chief complaints were that there are some wasted minutes -- a weakly executed subplot about Mandela's family could have been left out altogether. While I thoroughly enjoyed a subplot about his newly-integrated security force, there were other pieces that might have benefited from more editing. The soundtrack is a surprisingly mixed bag -- surprising because Eastwood usually knocks his soundtracks out of the park. A little too much use of cheesily sentimental vocal numbers hurts the tone of the film at times.
Hollywood has an irrepressible penchant for the heavily dramatized sports story, the tales of how it's not just a sport, sometimes a game is more than a game, hard work and love for one another can lead to a triumph of the human spirit. As Dustin wrote recently in a Random List, sometimes those inspirational stories aren't all that inspirational. On screen, Invictus is very much so. The film is a slow burn, a steady, methodical road towards that final dramatic match against the juggernaut New Zealand team in the championship. Mandela is impossibly noble, while Damon's Pienaar is something of a valiant everyman who is simultaneously overwhelmed by the challenge and the responsibility, but also dedicated and determined. The country is united in their adoration of the team, and it brings people together through the common cause and love of sport. It's a tremendous finale, even if it does seem a bit too long. Even those who know next to nothing about rugby won't be able to help being swept up in it, and it's helped by Eastwood wisely avoiding too many lengthy, shmatlz-ridden inspirational speeches. Eastwood does what he frequently does so well -- he makes his characters real and human. As such, the film succeeds in getting the viewer to buy into it, and the climax is handled with surprising subtlety. Blacks and whites aren't suddenly running through the streets hand-in-hand, but for a moment, they are united.
So of course, we must ask, how accurate is that? I'll give one last anecdote. In 1993, I remember driving past an all-white private school, where kids were practicing rugby on a lush green field. I asked my cousin, who was driving, if they ever watched rugby. Her response was a sharp, guttural noise of disgust, after which she proclaimed, "Rugby? Ach man, it's a boere sport." She was disgusted by the question. Rugby was, unquestionably, the sport of the oppressor, of the Afrikaaners, of the enemy. Two years later, that cousin, and other South African friends and family, would regale me with tales of how their team, their country, conquered seemingly impossible odds to win the whole damn thing. They would rattle off player's names breathlessly, tell me extensively of the bedlam that took place following that final minute of the match, how people danced and laughed and jumped up and down in the streets. If I didn't know any better, I'd have thought they were talking about the election all over again.
Invictus is one of the rare sports films that is accurate in terms of its impact, that captures the scope and tone and importance of the moment without too much exaggeration. The victory of South Africa over New Zealand was and still is perhaps one of the greatest sports moments of true national pride that the country and its people -- all of its people -- had ever experienced. In that sense, Eastwood captured everything about those events almost flawlessly. It truly did bring a nation together. South Africa still suffers from high crime levels, a crippled economy, widespread poverty, underdevelopment, and all of the other lasting effects brought down by the sins of its fathers. But for those months and weeks and days leading to June 24th, 1995 (and in many ways, since then), the country was one. Invictus captured this without an excess of melodrama, with just the right amount of spirit, with a loving eye for detail. It's a strong film that stumbles here and there, but it gets one thing right -- those events mattered, and because of them, the wound may have healed itself a little.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.http://www.pajiba.com/film_reviews/invictus-review-second-take.php
"Invictus" - A South African Review By Alan Brody December 15, 2009
If you don’t know rugby, a touchdown is called a try. This movie about the great World Cup rugby game at the beginning of Mandela’s Presidency definitely scores. It takes place when South Africa’s shaky new multiracial democracy was still finding its feet after years of white rule. Mandela needed to make peace and heal the land. He saw an opportunity to create rapprochement and a national bonding experience by embracing the game beloved by his former enemy and despised by his supporters.
However, there are also some fumbles - the other meaning if you will – of “try”.
Without doubt, Morgan Freeman gives an Oscar-worthy reincarnation of Mandela – thus putting himself firmly in the King-Poitier-Ali-Crosby-Oprah-Obama pantheon of black-people who radically changed white perceptions. Matt Damon too, gives a great aw-shucks performance as an innocent racist who understands how much he has to change. You’ll barely recognize this bulked up version of Damon and his South African accent is flawless. But, for the most part they are stock characters – you don’t really know what makes Mandela tick and you can’t fully grasp the transformation of Pienaar (Damon), the rugby captain, because you just don’t know that much about him.
While the movie works well at the storytelling level, it also rings somewhat hollow. You see this momentous change in a terrible political situation through old newscasts but not through the cast. The black presidential security detail has to make peace with white special service cops who may once have jailed them. The white cops are now reporting to people who may once have tried to blow them up. But you see none of this in personal backstories. The pacing is slow but it is steady and it builds. The end may be predictable but the audience still applauded. If you have no idea what rugby is you will leave the theater unenlightened and those of us who know about rugby can see the ball was somehow dropped.
Therein lies the problem: this is a movie about symbols, the kind that can bring everyone together, make peace and bind a nation. If you can’t really explain the true nature of rugby, you can’t really explain its significance in this story. As for the title: what is a nice Latin word like Invictus doing in an African movie? Shouldn’t Mandela - just one generation away from living in a hut with a polygamous family - be reaching back to an African poem for inspiration? Wouldn’t you expect something more African than classical?
In a way, it echoes the story of the kouros statue the Getty Museum once acquired. Scientists analyzed the stone and lawyers certified the paper trail. But when Thomas Hoving of the Met took one look at it, he knew it was fake because it looked “fresh” – something you don’t expect in a 3,000 year old statue. In fact, it was a modern reproduction made from authentic stone from that period.
That is not to say this movie is a fake but it is obviously made – well made, mind you – by people of a different age, place and time who have fused the authentic with something that isn’t quite right. The author is a British journalist who covered South Africa, the screenwriter is a non-rugby loving ex-patriate South African living in Morro Bay, California. The supporting actors and Damon’s voice coach are all authentic South Africans but the director and the two lead actors are American. As good a job as they did technically, something got lost in the mix. Instead of being too lively, this movie is, if anything, muted - even somber. You’d have to wonder what it would look like if a South African director had made it. What if, say, Gavin Wood (Tsotsi) or an up-and-coming African director had done it, how different would it would be?
First, you would get a visceral sense of the times. People were very scared, very divided but also hopeful. The townships were bursting with exuberance. The whites experienced fear, loathing but also optimism. You see it in Invictus but you really don’t feel it. The celebration of the blacks matched the viciousness of the old white regime while the crime spree justified their old fears. Houses once designed to be open - even admired - became surrounded with walls, then barbed wire, power gates and finally, electrified fences. Yet the whites felt somehow liberated too and to understand that you’d have to see how war and rebellion-weary they had become. You never quite feel the two different cultures – an African world drenched in music, dance and excitement versus a stiff, though cordial white world where the music is at best, restrained.
Most of all though, you would understand why rugby really matters. It is not just that the white Afrikaners were the country’s exclusive payers of rugby, it is that it’s a territorial game. Rugby is played around the scrum, that beehive formation of men from each team pushing against each other in contention for a ball thrust in its midst at the beginning of each play. Whichever team plucks it out – usually by foot – gets to run with the ball. The traditional advantage of the South African team is that they are one of the heaviest in the game. That is why Damon filled up on pap ‘n wors for the role. The heavier the scrum the better the chance they have of pushing the other team out of the way and grabbing the ball.
The point about rugby in South Africa is not just that it is the game of the oppressors but a kind of reenactment of the way they pushed the indigenous people off the land to get at its resources. That explains why the formerly great Bokke had lost their mojo. Thanks to majority rule, they were being pushed off their land and they just couldn’t pull off their old act on the rugby field any more. At least, not until they had gotten permission, marching orders and reassurance from the new black president.
The poem, Invictus, is never fully fleshed out and in truth it was an obscure 19th century poem written by a 12 year old who’d lost his leg to TB. While understandably awkward as a poem it ends with these two resounding lines:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
In fact, Mandela never sent that poem to Pienaar. He had been inspired by it in jail but he actually sent the rugby captain a version of Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech to inspire him.
Regardless of the actual poem, what matters is that Mandela reached out to a third place – a non-African heritage - to bring these former warring Africans of different races together. How do you explain that to Americans? They see these great aerial shots of Cape Town, the sophisticated cities contrasted with the black shantytowns (although you never go into any of these “informal” houses) and they must wonder: What Africa is this?
That is not say this isn’t a very good movie. It is not “Biko”, “Gandhi” or even “Chariots of Fire” though it is at least at the very front of the second tier. There is an academy award nomination or two in this and Clint deserves kudos for taking on something so far afield from his usual fare: Dirty Harry reincarnated as a couple of near-saints. As a feel-good movie it does indeed score: almost everyone wins – the whites, the blacks (he did forget the Jewish guy, Joel Stransky, a kind of South African Sandy Koufax who actually won the game with the drop kick.) The New Zealanders - ironically called the “All Blacks” on account of their uniforms - get to be the losers here even though they were a much more racially integrated team.
Not only that, but the All Blacks began each game with a fearsome Maori wardance called a Hakka which seemed to be lead by the blondest player. All the Bokke could do was glare back. But any South African knows they have their own ceremonial weapon, which is just as formidable: the Zulu War Dance. Yet no one mentions it – perhaps because Afrikaner rugby players don’t dance like that – ever - and Mandela was Xhosa as were most of the ruling ANC party and they were feuding with the Zulus. The New Zealanders even had rugby’s first true superstar, Jonah Loma, a terrifying figure who could simply plough through the opposing team with legs as thick and as unstoppable as tree trunks rolling down a cliff.
Nevertheless, Mandela’s support, Afrikaner determination and a little Hebrew footwork won the day and put the country on the track toward unity. In the end, this movie wins the cup but you get the idea there is more to be drunk from it along with a few more visits to the well.
Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” about a historic rugby match in South Africa in 1995.
By BILL KELLER
Published: December 2, 2009
MORGAN FREEMAN has been cast as God — twice — so he evidently has no trouble projecting moral authority. The challenge of portraying Nelson Mandela, then, was not the size of the halo, but knowing the performance would be measured against the real, familiar Mandela, and his myth. “If we can say any part of acting is hard, then playing someone who is living and everybody knows would be the hardest,” Mr. Freeman said in a phone interview.
Skip to next paragraphThe role has defeated actors as varied as Danny Glover (the 1987 TV film “Mandela”), Sidney Poitier (“Mandela and de Klerk,” 1997, also for TV) and Dennis Haysbert (“Goodbye Bafana,” 2007), in vehicles that were reverential and mostly forgettable.
But as someone who studied Mr. Mandela over the course of three years while he replaced an apartheid regime with a genuine democracy, I found Mr. Freeman’s performance in the film “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood, uncanny — less an impersonation than an incarnation.
He gets the rumble and halting rhythm of Mr. Mandela’s speech, the erect posture and stiff gait. There is a striking physical resemblance, enhanced by the fact that Mr. Freeman, 72, is just a few years younger than Mr. Mandela was in the period the film covers. More important, Mr. Freeman conveys the manipulative charm, the serene confidence, the force of purpose, the hint of mischief and the lonely regret that made Mr. Mandela one of the most fascinating political figures of his time. This is not, as the film’s screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, put it, “Rich Little doing Mandela in Vegas.”
It’s hard to say whether Americans at this moment in their history crave a 130-minute parable of racial reconciliation built around a 1995 World Cup rugby match in South Africa. Audiences and movie critics will render their verdict on “Invictus,” which reaches theaters Friday.
But we could probably do worse, as an antidote to the cynicism on the noisy margins of our political life, than spending a couple of hours watching Mr. Mandela calculating how to knit together a grotesquely divided society.
The story of “Invictus,” drawn from John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” begins with the newly inaugurated president of post-apartheid South Africa looking for ways to enlist his fearful white minority — with its talent, wealth, resentment and capacity for insurrection — in the business of governing a democracy. His inspired stratagem is to embrace the Springboks national rugby team, the darlings of the formerly ruling Afrikaners and, for most nonwhite South Africans, a symbol of brutal and humiliating repression.
The new president sets the team’s captain (François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon) the improbable goal of winning the World Cup; the tournament is to be held in South Africa in a year, and the Springboks are given little chance. Mr. Mandela sets himself the considerably more improbable goal of uniting country behind the team.
So loathed were the Springboks that those few blacks who showed up for matches rooted loudly for the other side. So the rugby campaign was one of Mr. Mandela’s boldest strokes of statecraft, no less impressive for the fact that the euphoria he achieved could barely begin to extinguish three centuries of racial antagonism.
Mr. Freeman’s occupational association with South Africa began with a role in the 1992 film “The Power of One,” the pious tale of a white boy coming to enlightenment in apartheid South Africa. Soon thereafter Mr. Freeman made his directing debut with a more tough-minded film, “Bopha!,” the story of a conflicted black South African cop, played by Mr. Glover. (Lori McCreary, who was a producer on that film and is a producer of “Invictus,” said she tried to lure Mr. Freeman for the lead part in “Bopha!,” but was told he “doesn’t do accents.”)
According to Mr. Freeman, his mission to portray Mr. Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from the subject himself. At a press conference to promote the publication of his 1994 memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” someone asked Mr. Mandela who should play him in the movie.
The South African film producer Anant Singh, who bought the movie rights to “Long Walk,” arranged for Mr. Mandela and Mr. Freeman to meet.
“I told him that if I was going to play him, I was going to have to have access to him,” the actor said. “That I would have to hold his hand and watch him up close and personal.” As president Mr. Mandela could be surprisingly approachable — he once allowed me, the New York Times correspondent in South Africa at the time, to shadow him during a day of his presidency, something I can scarcely imagine an American president allowing. But since stepping down in 1999, and especially since his memory began to fail him, he has become more reclusive, protected by a staff that worries he might embarrass himself. But he obliged Mr. Freeman.
“Whenever we’ve been in proximity in one city or another, I have had access to him,” the actor said. Their encounters ranged from tea at Mr. Mandela’s home in Johannesburg to a charity fund-raiser in Monaco. But through multiple screenplays Mr. Mandela’s sprawling memoir proved too unwieldy for a film, and Mr. Freeman abandoned the project.
“There’s just too much to whittle down to movie size,” Mr. Freeman said.
Then, in 2006, Mr. Carlin, a British journalist who had covered Mr. Mandela in the 1990s, was in Mississippi to write an article on poverty in the American South for El Pais, the Spanish daily that now employs him. He ended up in the Clarksdale living room of Mr. Freeman’s business partner. When the host went to the kitchen for a bottle of wine, Mr. Carlin recalls, he turned to Mr. Freeman.
“This is your lucky day,” he said. “I have a movie for you.”
“Oh, really,” Mr. Freeman replied. “What’s it about?”
“It’s based on a book I am writing about an event that distills the essence of Mandela’s genius, and the essence of the South African miracle.”
“Oh,” Mr. Freeman replied, “you mean the rugby game?”
Mr. Carlin’s proposal for his book had already been circulating in Hollywood, and it had caught Mr. Freeman’s eye.
Mr. Freeman sought Mr. Mandela’s blessing, bought the rights and persuaded Mr. Eastwood to direct. (Their two previous collaborations, “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” both won best picture Oscars.) They hired Mr. Peckham, a South African émigré, to write the script.
Mr. Freeman insists that if the portrayal transcends impersonation, that is largely Mr. Peckham’s doing.
As an actor, “you’re looking for the physical: how he stands, how he walks, how he talks,” he said. “Nuances he has in terms of tics or movements. Things that sort of define him. The inner life has to come off the page. Whatever he’s thinking, I don’t know. You have a script, and you stick to that script, and the script is going to inform you of everything.”
While Mr. Freeman brought to the project a decade of firsthand observation, Mr. Peckham, who left South Africa in 1981, had never — and still has not — met Mr. Mandela.
“He was a nonperson for my entire growing up,” Mr. Peckham said in a phone interview from his home in California. “You weren’t even supposed to have pictures of him. Everything I learned about him I learned from a distance, after I came here.”
For the feel of Mr. Mandela’s everyday speech, the screenwriter mined written documents, especially transcripts of a 1998 court case in which the South African president was subjected to a hostile grilling by lawyers for the national rugby hierarchy. (It tells you something about the incompleteness of the redemptive turn depicted in “Invictus” that, three years after the famous rugby match, Mr. Mandela appointed a commission to study whether the powerful rugby union was thwarting the advancement of black players.)
Mr. Peckham’s main difficulty in writing a script, he found, was to do justice to such a familiar and beloved figure without tipping into idolatry.
“It was extremely difficult, because in the period I write about he was in many respects at his most saintly — leading the country the way he did,” Mr. Peckham said. The danger of hagiography “was something we all knew was an issue and that I struggled with every day while I was writing it. With the additional complication that we didn’t want to be offensive and disrespectful either. It’s easy enough to kind of show someone’s feet of clay if you’re prepared to be brutal about it, but it’s not so easy when you want to be respectful without hero-worshiping.”
The notion they settled on to humanize the hero was that while Mr. Mandela was making a nation he was neglecting his own family. It is certainly true that Mr. Mandela’s marriage to the cause contributed to his two divorces and his estrangement from some of his children. In the movie there is a scene of Mr. Mandela, who could always summon the words to move a crowd, failing to connect with his resentful grown daughter Zinzi.
“Knowing what I know of Madiba personally,” Mr. Freeman said, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name, “his real concern is not for what he did, but more for what he didn’t do. He had family obligations that he couldn’t live up to, one, because he was in prison, and they just wouldn’t allow it, and he had so many other obligations. The father of the nation is usually less than the father of his family.”
South Africans listening to Mr. Freeman’s rendering may agree that he “doesn’t do accents.” (He says “Spring-BAHK” where Mandela would say “Spring-BOHK.”) But Mr. Mandela’s distinctive voice is less about accent than cadence, and Mr. Freeman gets that precisely right.
Mr. Carlin, who covered Mr. Mandela in his political prime and spent many hours with him for the rugby book, said Mr. Freeman “channels Mandela beautifully.”
Most important, Mr. Carlin said, Mr. Freeman, abetted by the screenwriter, “impressively conveys the giant solitude of Mandela.”
Though an admirer of Mr. Freeman, Mr. Carlin has seen Mr. Mandela gotten wrong often enough that he braced himself for disappointment. After attending a screening in Paris last month, he sent an ecstatic e-mail message: “They didn’t screw it up!” he wrote. “WHAT a relief!”
For me the realization that Mr. Freeman had nailed it came as the film ended. Alongside the closing credits came still photos of the actual rugby match, and the actual Mandela. And for a second I wondered, “Who is that impostor?”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 6, 2009, on page AR1 of the New York edition. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/movies/06invictus.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
3) Invictus (2009) Roger Ebert December 9, 2009 | 1 Print Page
Morgan Freeman has been linked to one biopic of Nelson Mandela or another for at least 10 years. Strange that the only one to be made centers on the South African rugby team. The posters for Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" feature Matt Damon in the foreground, with Freeman looming behind him in shadowy nobility. I can imagine the marketing meetings during which it was lamented that few Americans care much about about Mandela and that Matt Damon appeals to a younger demographic.
Screw 'em, is what I would have contributed. The achievement of Nelson Mandela is one of the few shining moments in recent history. Here is a man who was released after 24 years of breaking rocks in prison and sleeping on the floor to assume leadership of the nation that jailed him. His personal forgiveness of white South Africa was the beacon that illuminated that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, one of the very few examples in history of people who really had much to forgive, and forgave it. Let us not forget that both black and white had reasons to grieve, and reasons to forgive, and that in many cases they were facing the actual murderers of their loved ones.
Compared to that, what really does it matter that an underdog Springbok team, all white with one exception, won the World Cup in rugby in the first year of Mandela's rule? I understand that in a nation where all the races are unusually obsessed by sport, the World Cup was an electrifying moment when the pariah state stood redeemed before the world -- even if soccer is the black man's game there, and rugby is the white's. It was important in the way the Beijing Olympics were important to China.
Clint Eastwood, I believe, understood all of these things and also sought to make a film he believed he could make, in an area where he felt a visceral connection. Eastwood is too old and too accomplished to have an interest in making a film only for money. He would have probably read the screenplays for the previous Mandela projects. They all had one thing in common: They didn't get made. It was universally agreed that Morgan Freeman was the right actor (Mandela and he met and got along famously), but the story, financing and deal never came together. Eastwood made the film that did get made.
It is a very good film. It has moments evoking great emotion, as when the black and white members of the presidential security detail (hard-line ANC activists and Afrikaner cops) agree with excruciating difficulty to serve together. And when Damon's character -- Francois Pienaar, as the team captain -- is shown the cell where Mandela was held for those long years on Robben Island. My wife, Chaz, and I were taken to the island early one morning by Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela's fellow prisoners, and yes, the movie shows his very cell, with the thin blankets on the floor. You regard that cell and you think, here a great man waited in faith for his rendezvous with history.
The World Cup was a famous victory. The Springboks faced a New Zealand team so dominant it had crushed every opponent -- Japan by around 90 points, which in rugby is a lot. South Africa won in overtime. About that team name: The South African national teams have been called the Springboks since time immemorial (New Zealand is known as the All Blacks). A springbok is on the tail of every South African Airlines airplane. It's the national logo. Would Mandela change the name to one less associated with the apartheid regime? He would not. Join me in a thought experiment. An African American is elected mayor of Boston. He is accepted, grudgingly in some circles. How would it go over if he changed the name of the Red Sox?
Freeman does a splendid job of evoking the man Nelson Mandela, who is as much a secular saint as Gandhi (who led his first campaign in Durban, South Africa). He shows him as genial, confident, calming -- over what was clearly a core of tempered steel. The focus is on his early time in office. I believe there may be one scene with a woman representing Winnie Mandela, but the dialogue is vague. Damon is effective at playing the captain, Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, child of racist parents, transformed by his contact with "the greatest man I've ever met." Clint Eastwood, a master director, orchestrates all of these notes and has us loving Mandela, proud of Francois and cheering for the plucky Springboks. A great entertainment. Not, as I said, the Mandela biopic I would have expected.
Review for The Guardian (UK): Invictus 2 / 5 stars
Morgan Freeman's diligent, nuanced portrayal of Nelson Mandela fails to save this sporting fable from a creativity deficit
By Xan Brooks 31 January 2010 12.25 EST
"We need inspiration," declares Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in the midst of Clint Eastwood's ceremonial tale of the 1995 rugby World Cup in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela is ostensibly talking about the country as a whole, though he may as well be exhorting Invictus itself – a monolithic sporting saga that seems content to pose on the podium, lulled by the belief that its subject matter provides inspiration enough. At times it feels as though Eastwood has elected to skip the contest and proceed straight to the trophy presentation.
It's not that Mandela's turbulent first year as South Africa's president is lacking in drama. Invictus, which has its UK premiere tonight, plays out in a land scarred by apartheid and facing an uncertain future, led by an man still regarded by large swaths of the population as an unrepentant terrorist hell-bent on settling old scores. The genius of Mandela was in somehow managing to soothe these tensions, cajoling his countrymen towards an uneasy truce. But in charting this struggle, Eastwood sticks too close to the playbook and frames history as an airbrushed Hollywood heartwarmer. The implication is that, by the time our hero takes his seat at the world cup finals, none of these issues was ever a problem again.
Casting about for a symbol of the new, integrated South Africa, the newly elected president hits upon what initially seems an unruly and divisive candidate. The Springboks rugby team are not just languishing in the doldrums, they are also seen as a bastion of old white rule and therefore despised by the black majority who cheer whatever team is playing them. But Mandela spies an opportunity. He celebrates the Springboks' lone black player and sets out to woo its foursquare captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon).
Raised in a family of racist Afrikaans, Pienaar goes to his first meeting like a man contemplating root canal surgery. Needless to say, he comes out converted. "He's the greatest man I've ever met," Pienaar gushes to his wife.
The rest of Invictus (which takes its name from the WE Henley poem) follows the Springboks' unlikely push towards the World Cup final, where they face-off against New Zealand. After a lifetime playing Cinderella, Pienaar's stoic maid is duly invited to the ball. Outside the stadium, a pair of white cops listen to the match on the radio while a black urchin eavesdrops a short distance away. But by the time the contest has reached its conclusion, the cops have hoisted the kid on their shoulders and are presumably planning to pay his way through college. Invictus is that kind of movie.
Decent acting keeps it halfway honest. While hardly a dead-ringer for Mandela, Freeman turns in a diligent, nuanced impersonation that at least hints at the private man behind the public image. His Mandela is by turns wise and wily; his seraphic smile concealing a life of shadows. Meanwhile, Damon makes a good fist of his role as Pienaar, although his character is seldom allowed to be more than a plot device: the Afrikaner who sees the light.
The trouble with Invictus is that it is more monument than motion picture: handsome, reverent and heavy. How curious that this cautious, constrained affair was recently handed the Freedom of Expression award by the National Board of Review. Freedom of expression? Really? Judged in terms of creativity, spectacle and drama, Invictus might as well be stuck on Robben Island.