Mandela's Lessons Come Across Loud and Clear in 'Invictus'

City Pulse | December 7, 2009
Morgan Freeman's brilliant performance as Nelson Mandela is the kind of transformation that Academy Award members aggressively reward come Oscar season. Whether or not they'll be as impressed with Anthony Peckham's airy adaptation of John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy is questionable. The story is set in 1995, during the early days of Nelson Mandela's presidency, after he served 27 years in prison. Settling into his office, Mandela makes a point to meet with a black nationalist group that has voted to abolish the Springboks, South Africa's popular-among-Afrikaners rugby team. With calm resolve Mandela explains to his "brothers, sisters, and comrades" that it is better to lead by example than to mimic their former oppressors, who are now "partners in democracy." Viewing the Springboks as an ideal tool for promoting multiracial unity, Mandela invites the Springbok's level-headed Afrikaner team captain Francois (Matt Damon) for tea. There Mandela plants seeds of encouragement about Francois leading the Springboks to World Cup victory. Mandela mentions William Ernest Henely's poem "Invictus" to Francois as a fount of inspiration that kept him sane in prison. Invictus is beautiful snapshot biopic that lacks dramatic significance in its subplots. Still, the film makes its points by way of Eastwood's usual assured direction and Morgan Freeman's considerable portrayal.

Clint Eastwood has been a frequent fixture at the Academy Awards. With two films in 2006 (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima), and 2008's Changeling and Gran Torino, it's clear that Eastwood intends to make meaningful films until he can no longer get out of bed. Cinema audiences are all the richer for it. At 79 the former actor who jumped ranks from TV to spaghetti westerns -- after working as a television cowboy on "Rawhide" (1959-1965) -- is a consummate American filmmaker. Eastwood's mature approach to directing is the stuff of legend, and the proof of its effectiveness never drops from view in Invictus. Matt Damon's Francois hardly has any lines compared to his typical roles, and with his perfectly articulated Afrikaner accent and blond hair, you almost forget that it's Damon on screen.

Invictus is an instructive real-life parable that equates the significance of any one man to the greater effect he can achieve through his actions and speech. South Africa's unique idea of achieving "reconciliation" with their brutal oppressors is more than just a foreign concept to western culture. It is diametrically opposed to the eye-for-an-eye religious dogma used for 500-years by colonizing brigands to effect carte blanche military takeovers all over the world.

The film opens upon the arrival of Mandela in his new post as President. When Mandela's car passes a rugby field, a white coach calls Mandela a "terrorist" to one of his white teenaged players. The man instructs the boy to remember this day (Sunday, February 11, 1995) as the day that the county "went to the dogs." Convincingly processed newsreel footage shows Freeman's Mandela addressing 100,000 protesters in Durban. "Take your knives, and your guns, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea." Upon being sworn into office, the captivating Mandela promises, "Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world."

Reductive public speeches such as this, given to widely different groups of people in various public and private venues, exhibit Mandela's natural gift for expressing sensitive logic to remove confusion and clearly state his heartfelt messages of unity. Invictus is perhaps an appropriately disorienting word to open up more social discourse among us about how to better coexist with our neighbors close and far. And yet, it doesn't matter whether or not the film achieves such lofty goals because Clint Eastwood artistically tells an intrinsically dramatic story -- a sports story even -- that provides a concise history lesson about a momentous year of one of the world's best equipped world leaders.

Rated PG for brief strong language. 134 mins. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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