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Directed by Clint Eastwood
The twentieth Century;, as awful as it was, was blessed by the emergence of three saints: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela – somehow the worst eras in world life find unselfish men – saints – who help us to redeem ourselves and serve as beacons for the world.
“Invictus” is the story of one of the men – a man who spent 27 years chopping rocks at Robben Prison just outside Cape Town, and then emerged to take over as president of South Africa. Clint Eastwood has given us a portrait of that man, with an American actor who was designed by by whatever Gods there are, I think, to play Mandela – Morgan Freeman – who looks as though he’s waited more than 70 years to fulfill that role.
It is the first year of Mandela’s presidency, and the Rugby World Cup is set for South Africa, but the Springboks, the name for the team, is definitely second rate and is likely to be swept away in the quarter-final round.. The captain of the team is a an Afrikkaner played by Matt Damon – Francois Pienaar – as are all but one of the men; hated by the blacks for their cruel role in apartheid.
But Mandela tells his black people to keep the name of Springboks; to change it now would offend without finding any spot for forgiveness, which was Mandela’s chosen role to play as President. The Springboks practice and somehow survive the early rounds of play, until the cup final against the great New Zealand team, the so-called ‘all-blacks.’
But “Invictus” is more about Mandela than about Matt Damon, who becomes more an instrument of Mandela’s style of governance than just a hero on the field. And I think because of the script by Anthony Peckham, which manages to show so much of Mandela, from his estrangement from his own children to the way in which he models a new lifestyle for South Africa, including the persuasion of Damon to take the team to Robben Island prison and see the very cell in which their president spent 27 years, has an enormous effect on the team and of course on us in the audience. Rarely have I cried at something as unsentimental as this film, and yet knowing it was based on at least a portion of reality I surrendered to it once again. “Invictus” surmounts every possible cliche without distorting the facts, and emerges as a brilliant picture. (And by the way, the Victorian poem “Invictus,” which gives the film it’s name – you know it: it ends with the stanza: “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.”)
Well, it turns out that what Mandela actually gave Francois Pienaar was in fact Theodore Roosevelt’s address in France, in 1910, called “The Man in the Arena,” which is also beautiful, and which you can find for yourself on Wikipedia. It’s worth it.