“Invictus”: Historical Document or Sports Movie?

At one point in Clint Eastwood's latest movie, Invictus, a rugby-loving white South African tells a soccer-loving Black South African that "Football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen." It's an old saying, and while its veracity depends on your opinion of rugby players, it's interesting to think about, given this film's pedigree. Despite the Oscar-winning director, historical origins and fancy Latin title, Invictus is essentially a feel-good sports movie. I mean, it's not Major League or anything like that, but aside from some moments where the cast sits down and thinks about what Nelson Mandela went through in prison, it's a fun ride, and occasionally very funny, mostly thanks to Freeman playing Mandela as a man who is not above lightening the mood with a joke.

We first meet Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, on the day he takes office as the newly elected president of South Africa. He is at constant war with his head of security Jason (Tony Kgoroge) over how much danger he is in, which brings a lot of tension-breaking comedy to the movie, when perceived threats turn out to be harmless. When Mandela hires several ex-Special Police (i.e. white) bodyguards for the team, Jason and his all-Black team are understandably wary, but Mandela wants to present a united, multi-racial front, because his biggest fear is that the white population will turn on the newly empowered majority. So when he hears that the Springboks, South Africa's mostly white rugby team, is being threatened with disbandment and re-naming, he decides to put a stop to it. The Springboks are so beloved by the white population that the Black population usually roots against it, and Black children will not wear their green and yellow colors, out of fear of getting beaten up. Mandela resolves to correct this, and to make the team a unifying symbol, rather than a divisive one.

Mainly, this involves Mandela inspiring the team to not be so shitty. They lose constantly, although that may be because most of their countrymen root against them. (Even Mandela admits to doing it in his prison days.) So Mandela meets with team captain Francois Pienaar -- Matt Damon, who has turned his Informant pudge into Invictus pecs -- and tells him his plan, which is for the Springboks to win the World Cup tournament, which will conveniently be played in South Africa a year from then. So the team starts holding training camp montages for Black schoolchildren, in order to win their hearts and minds and get some positive coverage in the news for a change. Mandela visits the team, learns their names and starts to get really interested in rugby -- you know, since his whole plan kind of revolves around it -- and the team starts winning. Yes, it's that easy.

This is apparently all true, mind you. There may be some kind of change in their training, as well; the team's coach and manager are replaced at one point, but we don't really see that. It seems like simply being supported and believed in makes the rugby team get better. Also, the team's one Black player is so popular that they paint his face on the side of a plane. It would be a sports movie cliché if it weren't historical fact. Which makes it even funnier when Mandela starts stepping out of trade meetings and cancelling state affairs so he can watch rugby, and he sets up a big easel in his office with a bracket system on it.

I'll admit to knowing nothing about rugby going in, but after several exciting game montages, in which the Springboks play England, France and, in the finals, New Zealand's amusingly named All-Blacks, I think I actually know as much about how the game is played as I know about football. (In other words, not much, but enough to root for a team in a movie.) Eastwood has directed a sports movie before -- Million Dollar Baby, if you consider boxing a sport -- but that was far from a feel-good movie, whereas Invictus has the most storybook ending one could possibly imagine. It's hard to criticize that, because, again, it's all true, but Eastwood attempts to inject some gravity and importance into all of this by showing the team tour Mandela's prison cell, where we're treated to phantom Morgan Freemans splitting rocks and reading poetry, one poem in particular.

That poem is "Invictus", by William Ernest Henley, which gives the movie its title. I can see how the story inspired Mandela in prison, and how, with its mention of "bludgeonings," it could similarly inspire a rugby team. But part of me wishes that the actually quite fitting English translation of the title, "Unconquered," had been used as the film's title instead. Nothing against Latin, but it's a dead language for a reason, and that reason is because it makes every word sound like the name of a Transformer. ("Invictus Prime, roll out!") Of course, there have been several movies called Unconquered over the years, but something tells me this one could have set itself apart.

One major complaint about the film is the music. There are a couple of points where the clearly-spoken English lyrics are so trite and on-the-nose inspirational that you're knocked right out of the movie. Never before have I wished so much that I didn't understand English. South African music would have been preferable, although I suppose then the South Africans watching the movie would have had the same problem I did. Oh, well.

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