Clint Eastwood tells the story of South Africa’s triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the first World Cup after the end of apartheid. The title, “Invictus” comes from the inspiring poem that Nelson Mandela shared with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar. The movie is respectful, dignified, and a little dull.
Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, who shows us the new President’s grace and patience as well as his wisdom in treating everyone — even those who opposed the end of apartheid and believe his presidency is illegitimate — as countrymen, not enemies. He directs his black security detail to work with their white predecessors, and to remind them that it is important to smile at the people you are asking to move. Many people were skeptical that a black man who has spent 27 years in prison can lead a country where the white population had imposed legal segregation on the black citizens, asking “He can win an election. But can he run a country?”
And even his most loyal supporters wonder if he isn’t being unrealistic and trivial in hoping that a sports team can make a difference. “Unite [South Africa] for something more important than rugby,” one tells him. But the very first scene shows us Mandela, just after becoming President, driving down a road that has a wealthy, well-equipped white team playing on one side and a group of poor black boys in rags playing on the other. He knows that the rugby team can be a powerful symbol of unity and teamwork. He knows that all of the people of South Africa need to feel pride and a sense of shared purpose. He spent 27 years observing the Afrikaans guards at the prison and learning what was important to them. And so, he invites Pienaar (Matt Damon) to meet with him and he begins to memorize the names and faces of Pienaar’s team.
Eastwood has a good eye for striking images. While he does not handle the dynamism of the games well, he does make the rugby huddles look like something between a colorful Gordian knot and a many-legged creature. He has a gift for the small moments — a boy loitering near a police car so he can listen to the game on their radio, a housekeeper’s face when she is given a ticket to watch the game. He draws a connection between the two men — both are ferociously dedicated to making sure no one takes what is their away from them, not on their watch, and not today. But the impact is softened with dialog like “It’s not just a game!”
Mandela is such a transformative figure and Freeman such a distinguished actor that we are drawn in. It is impossible not to be stirred when he says, he does not want his followers to prove that they are what the whites feared; “We have to surprise them with compassion, restraint, and generosity.” But for a sports movie it is oddly lacking in momentum. Mandela tells Pienaar that he needs the team to win. We’re pretty sure that if they had not won, there would not be a movie about it (or, if there was, it would not be called the Latin word for “unconquered”). But that means we want to know why. We may get a sense of the way Mandela inspired Pienaar, but how did Pienaar inspire his team? Damon looks very buff and Pienaar seems like a nice guy, but this is rugby, one of the toughest sports on earth. How about showing us a little more ferocity? Some kind of strategy? Some individual personalities for the players? The New Zealand team they have to play in the big match does a little Maori war dance before the game that is more vivid and arresting than anything we see from the team we are supposed to be rooting for. Eastwood tells us this is all very important, but he never really shows us.