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Rated 3.05 stars
by 174 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The President and the Rugby Team
by Jeffrey Chen

Invictus derives most of its pleasures from being an unconventional conbination of two seemingly unrelated genres of movies -- the biopic and the sports movie. If the two get combined, it would likely be a biopic about someone who plays in a sport, but in this case the movie is about Nelson Mandela, as played by Morgan Freeman. A man of legendary stature and a trailblazer for peace in modern times, Mandela, freshly elected president of South Africa in 1994, is shown here not taking the usual routes -- speeches, demonstrations, policy debates, conferences -- to achieve a unity of the people he leads. Instead, he takes a shrewd gamble on the nature of humanity, and decides the best way to unite his divided populace is to get them cheering for the same sports team together.

The sport in question is rugby, and the team is the Springboks, South Africa's national team, captained at the time by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Nearly an all-white/Afrikaner team, the Springboks were hated by the black South Africans as they were hurtful reminders of the apartheid era. Thus, Mandela's challenge was to convince them to root for their national team in the impending 1995 Rugby World Cup, which South Africa would host. And so we watch the rugby team prepare, but we don't root for them in the usual way, where perhaps certain players and a coach are spotlighted, and we see them each battling personal demons, etc. There's a bigger picture here -- that they must do the best they can because the spirit of a country's people is at stake.

Invictus is as much an ode to Mandela as it is a testament to the power of sports. Director Clint Eastwood perhaps reveres Mandela a little too much -- he is shown as being wise beyond wise, incredibly patient, and uncommonly inspirational (the movie's title comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley which inspired Mandela while in prison; it's quoted in the film, and serves as the backbone for Mandela's confident determination). Indeed, he is flawless. But, in Eastwood's defense, it's a quality that we might be all too ready to believe about this man. And Freeman's performance is excellent, his own natural warmth strongly enhancing that of his real-life character.

But while the first half of the movie is more dedicated to Mandela formulating this mission, the second half belongs to sports -- rugby in particular, but sports in general. Sports is one of the most fascinating components of the human existence -- it is essentially a replacement for war, or, more precisely, an avenue to vent our natural lust for competition and aggression, but what's amazing about it is how most people involved in it, players and fans alike, can contextualize it for what it is (that is, not actual, hateful war -- a game is a game). A team becomes something to root for with all the dedication and passion one would be ready to devote to possibly more personally productive pursuits, such as career and family; it breaks barriers in that two fans can come from entirely different backgrounds, but if they root for the same team, none of that would matter. So the amazing thing about the story of Invictus is how Mandela understood this, and was able to use it as a step toward dissolving the animosity between the two factions of his people.

The movie does stumble in places, mainly when it tries to emphasize that, yes, racial divisions can be overcome. It contains a subplot involving Mandela's security detail -- at first, it's an all-black team, until Mandela forces them grudgingly to join forces with the white members of the previous president's team. They are shown having difficulty getting along, but of course they are to reflect the progress of race relations throughout the course of the movie. The film also utilizes treacly background songs to drive its point home. Also, because the story itself is naturally lacking in suspense (other than from the progress of the team as it plays its way toward the finals) -- even the captain Pienaar readily accepts and understands what Mandela is asking him and his team to do, so there's not any conflict there -- Eastwood introduces what feels like a manufactured element of danger to emphasize how unsafe Mandela's person was at the time. The silliest instance of this is when a commercial jetliner does a fly-by over a sports stadium.

Yet as clumsy as these touches are, Eastwood makes up for them by giving the sport itself a big nod of respect -- the last half-hour of the movie is, no surprise, the big game, but it's depicted in a way not like any other sports movie I've seen. With no announcing and very little fan/player/coach commentating, the final rugby match is played out almost wordlessly, entirely in images of the game and the people watching, fading in and out of one another. In these last moments, the poetry of unity, harmony, and the majesty of sports is communicated most lyrically. It's the final brushstroke contributing to the flow of Invictus, one with a simplicity that is almost childlike in its optimism, in the idea that Mandela's goal was so pure and the rugby team was so determined, all that mattered was that they could work together and they could achieve a singular major humane accomplishment.

(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG-13" for brief, strong language.)

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