“Nelson Mandela -- a great leader or the greatest leader?” I can’t help imagining Stephen Colbert asking that question on his TV show. After watching Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela, I would definitely rank this iconic political figure in one of those categories. Masterfully directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus shows how Mandela used his humanistic leadership style AND a rugby team to bring opposing forces together after being elected President of South Africa back in the 1990s.
With every gesture, movement and line of dialogue, Freeman (The Bucket List) captures Mandela’s dedication to a policy of reconciliation among the races after apartheid. In fact, when asked what actor should portray him in a movie, Mandela said, “Morgan Freeman!” Although playing one of his most challenging roles here, this veteran actor succeeds in transforming himself into a believable film version of the remarkable real-life leader. Freeman’s posture, accent and facial expressions make us think we’re watching Mandela himself, not an actor.
Why did rugby assume so much importance to Mandela? After all, South Africa’s “Springboks” included only one black player -- and the team, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), appeared to be a symbol of longstanding white oppression. But when Mandela realized his nation would be hosting the Rugby World Cup, he understood how much attention this event would bring to South Africa as well as the potential of the team to help him unite his nation. So he went on a campaign to gain support for the Springboks by motivating their team captain to inspire his players and by sending the team into poverty-stricken neighborhoods for “rugby clinics” with youngsters.
To Mandela, who served 27 years in prison because of his anti-apartheid activism, one of the most important elements of “reconciliation” involves forgiveness. Invictus helps us see how this leader became a model of forgiveness, even to the point of keeping former security workers -- who previously fought against him -- on his personal staff. Leading by example, Mandela paved the way for others to follow his high moral standards.
Although Damon (The Informant!) seems an unlikely choice for the role of a South African rugby captain, he must have worked hard to get in shape for this physically demanding part, for rugby is a VERY rough sport indeed. Unlike football, the team members have no protection such as helmets or padding of any kind. I didn’t expect Damon to be so convincing as Francois Pienaar, but his versatility as an actor continues to surprise and impress me.
I admire filmmaker Eastwood (Gran Torino) for taking on inspiring projects like Invictus, which is based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Game. His sharp directing approach comes through loud and clear in this thought-provoking movie. While Eastwood allows the final rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand to go on too long for my taste, I’m giving a big shout out to Invictus for its dramatic history lesson about quality leadership and the power of forgiveness.
I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.
– from Invictus, a poem by William Ernest Henley
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “PG-13” for brief, strong language.)
For more information about this film, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.