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Selling short Nelson Mandela and rugby

Invictus (PG). Running time: 133 minutes. Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

Invictus, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Nelson MandelaAs a film director Clint Eastwood is capable of bringing a light touch to worthy subjects. That was evident in last year's Gran Torino, where the redemptive arc of a seemingly irredeemable racist, Korean War veteran Walt (played by Eastwood), was imparted for the most part with warmth and copious humour.

In Invictus Eastwood again turns with a light tough to race relations, this time in post-Apartheid South Africa. The film recounts the South African Springboks' historic 1995 Rugby World Cup run, as well as then-fledgling president Nelson Mandela's role in rallying the team to victory. It is part biopic, part sports film, part feelgood drama. It really succeeds on only one of these fronts.

The film recreates the early days of Mandela's (Freeman) presidency. He arrives at work to find that the white members of government staff are convinced that his first point of order will be to dismiss them. He puts their minds at ease by offering the staff an introductory pep talk, the gist of which is that reconciliation in South Africa is going to begin among his own staff.

To underscore his point, he assigns four white men to join four black men as his personal bodyguards. A subplot in Invictus follows the gradual growth of trust and even camaraderie between these eight men. This is an enjoyable, if heavy-handedly symbolic, portrayal of reconciliation found through shared endeavour and dialogue.

Mandela decides rugby is key to his vision of reconciliation. The Springboks are beloved of white South Africans, but despised by black South Africans. Rather than slight the onetime oppressors by disbanding the team, Mandela puts the onus of forgiveness on the formerly oppressed: break the cycle of hatred by embracing 'their' team as 'ours'.

He then sets a simple challenge to the struggling Springboks' put-upon captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon): Inspire your people by winning the World Cup.

The film traces the Springboks' campaign, and Mandela's growing enthusiasm for the sport. What starts out as a political calculation becomes also a hobby for the president. Pienaar, meanwhile, grows to overcome his doubts and to appreciate the importance of the campaign, not just for sport's sake, but as part of the healing of his wounded nation.

Invictus is less interested in Mandela's political nous, than in the personal interactions between him and members of his staff. We hear little of his activist history, although there is a sense of this in the respect with which other characters regard him. On the other hand we get glimpses of his sadness and regret with respect to his estranged wife and children.

In that regard, it is a warm and human portrayal, but one that sells the real Mandela short. We are left with the impression that his entire strategy, in terms of reconciling black and white South Africans, was based on barracking for their ruby team. It makes for a good story, but lends complexity to neither the protagonist nor to the plight of his countrymen.

Still, Invictus is certainly a compelling and entertaining drama. Among its strengths are the performances of Freeman (in the role he was surely born to play) and Damon.

The film also manages to find joy in small moments: a football clinic for slum children led by the newly socially conscious Springboks; a black child sneaking a listen to a World Cup match on a radio owned by two initially hostile white men, and later finding himself included in their celebrations as the match reaches its climax.

Invictus relies heavily on symbolism. For a sports film, this proves to be a weakness. Its portrayal of on-field rugby action is truncated and merely representative. Sports fans hoping to see large-scale set-pieces may be disappointed. Invictus favours mash-ups of scrums and field goals rather than sustained passages of play.

Also, aside from a few fleeting training sessions, we are not shown just how the Springboks elevated themselves from mediocrity to world-beating glory. Are we to presume the inspiration of the president and the increasing goodwill of a more united South Africa carried them all the way? Rousing speeches all well and good, but surely there had to be some hard work involved as well.

Similarly, are we to accept that the inspiration of sporting victory is alone sufficient to solve conflict and soothe the way to redemption and rebirth for a divided nation? If so, then it must be said that this is history rendered as a fairytale, and one with a fairly glib moral at that.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: invitus, clint eastwood, matt damon, morgan freeman, nelson mandela, south africa, apartheid, springboks



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