Invictus: A Truly Under-rated Sports Film
June 21, 2010 12 Comments
Yes, Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus is about much more than rugby. South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) uses the sport, and the nation’s team, as a means of uniting a terribly divided nation. The film opens with Mandela being released from Robben Island as a political prisoner of nearly 26 years. His release also marks the end of apartheid in South Africa, sparking mounting tension among the Afrikaners and black natives. But what I was struck by in watching this under-appreciated film was what a great sports film this actually is.
Eastwood doesn’t get bogged down with all of the politics and he is certainly not concerned with hitting you over the head repeatedly by telling us how apartheid is bad and Mandela is a wonderful human being. Any political messages that do seep in are done with careful sleight of hand and delicate subtlety. The film is concerned with one thing — how President Mandela used his country’s underdog rugby team to help bring his segregated nation together.
There are some truly wonderful, inspiring sports films (Rocky, Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, et al), but I can’t think of many that illustrate just how sport and the beauty of competition can bring an entire country together. Perhaps Miracle, which showcased one of the biggest upsets in sports history when the United States’ hockey team won the Olympic Gold Medal. The film was ok, but I felt it could’ve been much better than it was. Now I don’t know squat about rugby — but that didn’t stop me from getting swept up in the drama and the terrific run that the South African Springboks go on.
Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the team’s captain. The team, made up mostly of white Afrikaners, stinks. For black South Africans, the team’s name and logo represent a dark history and they want to change that. They refuse to show the team any support, even rooting for opposing England to beat them. Meanwhile, the World Cup of 1995 is less than a year away. Mandela makes it a point of showing everyone just why it’s so important to retain the team’s name, logo and colors.
Based on true events, I was caught up in the team’s magnificent, exciting run to the World Cup. Eastwood doesn’t get caught up in the melodrama that most sports films fall victim too; no cliche film shots or trite dialogue here. He also doesn’t use the captain (Damon) as the team’s star player on the field at all. It’s a total team effort. And you don’t have to know anything about the violent sport that is rugby to enjoy the film or the many scenes where games are in progress. In a match against the heavily favored New Zealand team, Pienaar speaks to his team in a huddle over the craze of 62,000 screaming fans telling them that this is their destiny. A riveting moment and Eastwood does a brilliant job at capturing the mood and pulse of the nation during this entire match.
I think when people think of Invictus, they think of a movie about Nelson Mandela. True, the film does show what an inspirational figure he was to his people (and Morgan Freeman is pretty damn brilliant in it), but it does so in such an understated way. For me, I thought this film showed us what sport and competition is all about and that is why I feel it should not be overlooked when movie fans discuss great sports movies. It shows us both the savageness and the grace of rugby, the essense of teamwork and just what something simple like a sports team can do not just for a small town or even a state, but an entire country. Especially with the craze going on right now with the World Cup of Soccer, this is a film that any fan of sports should watch.