Review: Invictus (2009)

The Thinker by Rodin

Nelson Mandela is still with us, but just barely. The former South African president made the news recently with his lengthy hospitalizations. At age 95 and after having spent 27 years in prison for the crime of fighting for a non-Apartheid South Africa, it’s amazing he is alive at all. Most recently Mandela lost his voice.

Invictus looks back to Mandela’s years as president from 1995-1999, a turbulent time indeed, and the remarkable job that Mandela did rehabilitating South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. Mandela’s actions were too many to document, so this movie focuses mostly on one aspect of it: the country’s rugby team, the Springboks. In 1995 like most of South Africa’s institutions, the team was all white in a country that was mostly black. The Springboks were also perennial losers. Rather than feel patriotism when the team played, most South Africans felt shame. Perhaps no one felt more ashamed than the team’s captain, Francois, whose flaming blond hair could give Julian Assange a run for the money. Matt Damon plays Francois, and does so good a job it’s hard to recognize him as the prominent star that he is behind the light hair and Afrikaans accent. It’s easy to spot our favorite African American actor Morgan Freeman, who effortlessly plays Nelson Mandela.

Mandela sure inherited an awful mess. He was not a natural statesman, but one who rose to circumstances to become one. His leadership style was not one of shrewd political manipulation as we see here in the United States, but simply his force of character. It is put to the test right near the start of the movie when he settles in for his first full day on the job as president, and his black security team moves in as well. What to do with the white security team that had so faithfully guarded his white predecessors and who look ready to spit nails? Mandela simply welcomed them, and asked both teams to work together, a relationship that certainly was strained and nearly involved fisticuffs. The key to his leadership was simply putting trust in people, and if you can’t trust your security you can’t trust anyone. Security teams jockeyed for position, privilege and favor but slowly and awkwardly they do manage to integrate, both in practice and in spirit.

Integration of the white Springboks was not one of Mandela’s pressing concerns, but he does see potential in the team that even its captain could not feel. Mandela challenges them to an impossible feat: winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was played in South Africa that year, in the hope that their win would inspire South Africans in their country’s potential. That is more than a challenge; it seems wholly audacious, particularly since the best team in the league is the New Zealand All Blacks, sort of like the New York Yankees of rugby. Mandela, among all his other pressing affairs of state, finds time to come to Springboks games and cheer the team on, and ignores being pelted by garbage from white fans in the stands. Mandela’s role is not to lead the Springboks, that’s Francois’s role, but he does manage to inspire Francois who develops a grudging respect for this low key black president.

While this is a pleasant enough movie to watch (who can’t love Morgan Freeman or feel inspired by Nelson Mandela?) there is little in the way of suspense and the film’s conclusion won’t surprise you in the least. The movie is basically about what it means to lead, and Mandela’s style of leadership is both inspiring and low key. He does not have the magnanimous personality of a John F. Kennedy. In many ways though his simply honesty and doggedness is an example of enlightened leadership, and it certainly helps turn around the losing Springboks.

This movie was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. It won’t surprise you to learn that he and Morgan Freeman are good friends and both have acted together in movies like Million Dollar Baby. This is a solid but not exceptional work with decent acting and stagecraft, and is mostly useful to get some idea of just who Nelson Mandela is as a person rather than the mythic figure we read about in the press. He has an unassuming Jimmy Carter-like demeanor, but that doesn’t mean he cannot move mountains. He certainly does, just quietly, slowly and with great persistence.

3.0 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

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