Not Only for Love of the Game
“Based on actual events,” John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy was scripted by Anthony Peckham into Invictus. Even those who know zilch about rugby or this 2009 biopic cannot but be familiar with the outcome from its place of pride within the mass coverage of Nelson Mandela’s funeral five years later. That conclusion is foregone, anyway, from the tone and tenor of Clint Eastwood’s stretched out two-and-a-quarter hours.
The attraction of the film lies not in any surprise but in Morgan Freeman as Mandela -- so pitch perfect that the line between actor and archival is thin -- and, in a lesser rôle, bulked-up Matt Damon as François Pienaar. Pacing is sluggish until the long, mostly well done-sporting contests, and, though there are sentimental lapses, the director sidesteps the treacle this could so easily have become. “Inspiration” comes up in the context of politics, nation-building and sport, and, often a backhanded cinema compliment, is an essential ingredient here.
Beyond mere “unbeaten,” the title is introduced through the new President’s written suggestion for athletic victory which he hands to Springbok national team captain Pienaar. In Hollywood truth, and perhaps for a time in real truth, the world title match against New Zealand’s invincible All Blacks unites the whites, blacks and coloreds of barely post-apartheid South Africa. William Henley’s 1888 poem “Invictus” kept the leader’s spirits afloat during a third-of-a-century’s imprisonment, most famously on Robben Island. When green-and-gold players visit the facilities and now-president’s tiny cell, Pienaar “sees” the prisoner breaking rocks in the barren yard and “hears” the űber-famous “bloody but unbowed . . . master of my fate . . . captain of my soul.”
The hagiography feebly allows little warts, in the smiling leader’s estrangement from Winnie and the children and his quiet sensitivity about the topic. Saccharine screen sainthood is nevertheless overcome by the lead performances and, whatever the portion of fact or fiction, by what is a story of good news well told.
Mandela’s purposely black and white political, professional and security staffs suffer from the country’s mutual distrust, unfamiliarity and antagonism. Borderline irritating in being all-forgiving and proving always right, the new head of state (and former boxer) is so perceptive that he alone appreciates the potential of sport for bringing factions together in his seething nation. “A ruffian’s game played by gentlemen,” rugby is the Afrikaner outlet of choice. Lily-white except for Chester Williams (McNeil Hendricks), the national team has fallen on hard times and is publically and repeatedly ridiculed by smug sportscaster Johan De Villiers (Robin Smith).
The Xhosa-, English- and, learned from his jail warders, Afrikaans-speaking Mandela entrusts Pienaar with guiding the team though the 1995 World Cup tournament, in which as host nation they have a slot. Chester’s hamstring injury is only a momentary suspense blip. Himself sporting a team cap and number 6 Pienaar jersey, the president will inspire the captain and players to inspire the nation and the world. Just as Pienaar’s family and its maid (Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, Sibongile Nojila) cheer and embrace one another in the delirium of athletics, so, too, will the president’s family and his security team, the Springboks team and, not only the 62,000 screaming “Nelson” and “Bokke” in Ellis Park Stadium, but the forty-five million of the beloved country.
True in whole or in part, despite having the appearance of a B movie, this improbable story never lowers itself to the hoary staple of sport-as-metaphor-for-life, and is easy to root for.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “PG-13” for brief, strong language.)