Invictus: A Truly Under-rated Sports Film


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.


12 Responses to Invictus: A Truly Under-rated Sports Film

  1. rtm says:

    Interesting point of view, Peter. I too loved this film, though I actually see this as more than a sports movie. In my review, I said that the movie rose above a typical feel-good sports movie. It’s one that I’ll remember more for its profound message on humanity than the rugby game. But then again, I’m not exactly a sports-movie fan.

    @ Aaron – I felt the same way about the trailer at first, but I’m glad I got to watch this on a plane ride. I guess the lesson is, one can’t judge a movie from its trailer 🙂

    • You are absolutely correct. It is much more than a sports film. The rugby is surely secondary. If this were an actual film review i would have certainly said as much. “Profound message on humanity” is a great way to put it and 100% on the mark. I was quite moved by this movie…

  2. Dan says:

    Interesting thoughts Peter. I haven’t seen Invictus yet but Eastwood has been making consistently good films over the past few years. The best sports films use the fundamentals of playing as an extension of characer/plot/theme, and I think that’s what makes some of my favourites stand out from the pretenders (Bull Durham, Breaking Away, Bad News Bears, Remember The Titans, Coach Carter, Friday Night Lights, Rocky (…4..!) )

    • Agree with you. His output has been exemplary. And for reasons you suggest here – that’s why I thought this was such a good “sports film.” I sports film should show the glory of competition and the human spirit. Sport is a great analogy for so many things and it is done very well, albeit very simply, here.

  3. Aaron Weiss says:

    I saw the trailer for this film a long time ago just prior to being released. I felt that the trailer told me everything I needed to know about the film, thus I skipped it. I did the same for Gran Torino, and I was floored on how good it was. Perhaps I need to stop thinking that Eastwood’s films are easily compressed to the trailers, and just go see the movies. I blame myself for not seeing this in theaters.

    • Yeah, it’s tough to go by the trailers sometimes. Plus, I admite that Invictus trailer didn’t “wow” me….but Eastwood has been making such excellent work for years now…we should both give him the benefit of the doubt. I was surprised by this one and enjoyed it very much.

  4. Raul Duke says:

    How many times can Morgan Freeman go to the well with that character ? And Matt Damon brought more Jason Bourne than Good Shepherd.

    • Good Shepherd was a 150 minute snoozefest! This is the first time I know that Freeman has played Mandela. He was terrific. A better sports film than Tin Cup!

      • Raul Duke says:

        Mandela Smandela??? Freeman plays every part the same. Seven, driving miss daisy, shawshank, million dollar baby… ALL THE SAME! He plays Morgan Freeman very well and it kinda fits in alot of movies but he’s the same guy ALWAYS. Good Shepherd was boring, which is why I said LESS like good shepherd and more like bourne. jeeze!

    • Raul says:

      should have brought…

  5. Red says:

    I’m a huge sports fan, but was pretty bored with this movie. It seemed like Eastwood didn’t take any risks with this movie whatsover, and that really bothered me.

    Oh, and entire country being brought together? Cool Runnings. 🙂

    • Oh yes, how dare I forget Cool Runnings! Shame on me!!! I know many thought this boring and I think that’s why I stayed away with it. I thought Eastwood’s direction, though not as daring as his recent movies, was terrific…I think he made a conscious decision not to step in the melodrama territory and told us a simple story. I found it refreshing and was surprised at how much I got wrapped up in it.

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