Hopes are understandably high throughout the rugby playing world for Oscar-winning actor & director Clint Eastwood’s new film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar, set in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
For one thing, many hope a positive depiction of the game may help boost interest in America, which would be a huge global boon to the sport should that sleeping giant awaken.
Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” Invictus tells the unlikely story of how Mr Mandela conspired to use the Springboks to try and bring blacks and whites together in the rather acrimonious year immediately following South Africa’s historic transition to democracy in 1994.
At the time, the few black South Africans that did turn up to rugby games would enthusiastically cheer for whomever the Spring Boks were playing against. The Boks were loathed as a symbol of Afrikaner oppression. Right at the point that the National Sports Council decided to abolish the Spring Boks, Mandela intervenes to retain the team, and its uniform, to try and unite both whites and blacks behind the Boks, including an image make-over that involves sending the team out into impoverished townships to act as ambassadors for the game to poor black kids.
But the two questions on the mind of any rugby-lover from the Southern Hemisphere are undoubtedly: 1) Is the rugby action any good? and 2) Does Eastwood make any mention of a certain alleged food poisoning incident?
To answer the first question – not one of the kick-offs depicted at the tournament appear to make it over the 10 metre line, and none of the players seem to have any sort of sporting personality, let alone much physical resemblance to the actual players. A reasonable amount of attention is focused on Jonah Lomu, including actual footage of that try when, after storming around, past, and through several England players, Lomu just runs completely over the top of the hapless Mike Catt. New Zealanders will never get sick of watching that replay as long as they live. But the rules and nature of the game aren’t really explained at all, and Invictus doesn’t really communicate the poetic, ‘brutal ballet’ nature of rugby at the highest level. Clearly Eastwood is not a rugby fan.
To answer the second question, I’ll let infamous Welsh rugby scribe, aka England’s greatest cheerleader Stephen Jones say it in his words instead, because it’s not often you hear anything like this from his mouth:
Eastwood completely ignores what is in some ways the most controversial aspect of the whole day – were New Zealand poisoned by dodgy food before the match? Remember that some key players missed the final, others were drained throughout and others were sick during the game.
Not for a moment do I deny the momentous nature of that tournament, my affection for the whole thing and my intention to give Invictus every chance.
But it is important to remember that New Zealand were unquestionably the best team in that tournament, that their upper limits would comfortably have been too good for the Springboks on any other day, especially on a day when New Zealand’s insides were behaving themselves! Trouble is, that would have robbed Clint of a film, and robbed South Africa of an amazing day and an amazing time.
I would also add that while some of the sweeping panoramas of Cape Town are beautiful, and a great advertisement for the country – including the aerial footage of Robben Island where Mandela was captive for twenty seven years, the cinematography in general is not. Neither is the soundtrack, including a spectacularly cheesetastic piece of corn syrup that accompanies a helicopter trip Mandela takes to wish the Boks good luck on the eve of the final.
That said, for all its flaws, Invictus, Latin for unconquerable, is still pretty stirring in its depiction of a wounded nation finally starting to come together and heal – and Morgan’s portrayal of Mandela is truly magnificent.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley