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Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009

Invictus

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela

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The teams were separated by a cyclone fence, a road and a world of difference. On one side of the street in South Africa, a white rugby team in neat uniforms kicked the ball around a manicured field; on the other, a ragtag black team played in the dirt. And suddenly, rushing down the road, came a motorcade with the man who would bring both sides together, Nelson Mandela, just released from prison after 30 years. It would not be an easy task. The black players lined the road and cheered. The whites stared sullenly at the man who embodied the end of their long reign.

Invictus is a story about sports bringing a society together. It stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, and Matt Damon as Francois Plenaar, captain of the Springbok rugby team, a symbol of white South African pride. Director Clint Eastwood set the message in place with the opening scene of a nation divided, split down the middle by race, separated by privilege and poverty, and given hope by a man with the faith to overcome those divisions.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not as cinematic, and unwinds with a leisurely pace at odds with the dynamism of rugby—a fast moving sport, played in shorts and jerseys without helmets or padding, that makes American football look like a game for the timid. Offsetting this is Freeman’s powerful performance as the regal Mandela, the scion of African nobility who brought democracy to all people in a country ruled by a white minority. Freeman exudes the enormous gravity of Mandela’s dignity, a presence that must have given even his jailers pause, while granting the great man a twinkle in the eye and a dry sense of humor.

Invictus uses Mandela’s politically savvy effort to rally South Africa around Springbok, as the team sprinted into the World Cup games, to symbolize his campaign of reconciliation. Black rugby fans inevitably rooted for foreign teams to snub the whites and Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, planned to change Springbok’s name and colors to eradicate a hated reminder of the country’s white past.

Mandela disagreed. “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear—that is why it is a powerful weapon,” he said in his characteristic blend of profound wisdom and astute pragmatism. Rather than disband Springbok, and alienate the country’s already wary whites, he transformed it into a team that represented the entire nation. In this he found a willing partner in Plenaar, played by Damon with a rugged athletic edge that can’t entirely eclipse his persona as the wholesome boy next door.

Whatever historical or psychological shortcuts Eastwood took in telling the story, Invictus depicts a great truth about one of the 20th century’s most remarkable figures. Rather then the bloodletting many expected when power shifted from white to black, Mandela chose the high road of forbearance and peacemaking.

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