‘Invictus’ successfully captures Mandela’s complexity, triumphs

The film “Invictus,” set in South Africa in the 1990s, is about newly elected president Nelson Mandela and his efforts to unite his country through a rugby team. It might be mistakenly put into two categories: the underdog-sports-team-fights-to-the-top category or the political-leader-unites-his-country category. Of course, both of those storylines exist in the film, but that’s exactly what makes “Invictus” so effective and unique – the intertwining of the two.

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) celebrates his release from prison, and later his presidency, as well as unification with his country. (MCT Campus)
Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) celebrates his release from prison, and later his presidency, as well as unification with his country. (MCT Campus)

The film opens on February 11, 1990, the day Mandela was released after nearly three decades in prison. It is clear that this is a day to celebrate in the black communities of South Africa, but a day of uncertainty about the future for much of the white population. Soon after his release, Mandela is elected the first black president of South Africa, a development that holds great weight due to the country’s recent history of apartheid.

Mandela must lead a country brimming with racial tension and with highly polarized feelings toward its own leader. However, something that the citizens of South Africa do have in common is their expectation of revenge. The white Afrikaner nationalist population, known for its past oppression and brutality toward blacks, waits for vengeance from Mandela, as do many black supporters of the president.

However, Mandela seeks a different approach, much to the frustration of some of his supporters. His goal, for the moment, is to unite his people – or to at least reach a state of general agreement. His plan: why not start with the South African rugby team? As harmless as this seems, the rugby team did not seem like the right tool through which unity could be achieved. The team was representative of Afrikaner beliefs, and its colors synonymous with apartheid. The few blacks who did attend rugby games cheered for the opposite team. In addition, South Africa’s Springbok rugby team has the terrible reputation of rarely winning a match.

Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is devoted to his idea of making the team a catalyst for a united nation. He meets with Springbok captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, and quietly inspires the rugby player to help his team come to terms with the new realities of their country and to understand their role in South Africa. As a young man, Pienaar learns to become a leader for his team and his country, as the Springboks head for the Rugby World Cup.

Freeman captures the sometimes mystifying complexity of Mandela almost perfectly, as well as Mandela’s gracious and humble character. His looks so closely resemble Mandela’s and his manner is so similar that it almost feels like you are actually watching Mandela. Freeman also does an admirable job of imitating Mandela’s accent, probably not the easiest task.

Damon, too, was quite compelling as the pensive rugby captain. He mastered Pienaar’s accent, in addition to the player’s natural athleticism and leadership qualities.

The film seems well-deserving of an Oscar, perhaps for Freeman’s performance, although it did not win any Golden Globe awards.

The film is about forgiveness and reconciliation, and director Clint Eastwood manages to illustrate this idea without exaggerating it. The small interactions and the way they unfold make it a worthwhile movie to see; don’t expect something epic, but look forward to a well-done movie.