Victory With (A Sappy) Heart

As a sports fan, I am well aware of games’ ability to bring people together and create disharmony.  For every story of cooperation across racial and ethnic lives, we hear about violence at international soccer matches in eastern Europe or post-game violence between parents after their kids’ baseball game.  Clint Eastwood‘s latest film, Invictus, reveals the power of sport to unite people across great distances and to even uplift an entire nation.Invictus tells the story of Nelson Mandela‘s (Morgan Freeman) then-recent release from prison on Robben Island on February 11, 1990.  His re-entry into the population and subsequent election as President of South Africa plunges him deeper into a post-apartheid world reeling form racial injustice and economic turmoil.  He also has an under-performing international rugby team on his hands.  He sees the divisions created between ruby and soccer players/fans often drawn on blurry racial and economic lines.  Attending a match, he sees that the black South Africans cheer for the opponents while the whites cheer for the Springboks, the South African national team.  To help heal this division, he challenges the South African team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to win the upcoming World Cup, an event at which the experts expect South Africa to go no further than the quarter finals.  The film follows Mandela’s attempts to inspire the hearts and minds of South Africans, both black and white, and Francois’s attempts to inspire his team to greatness.

Invictus suffers from a sappiness that seems uncharacteristic for an Eastwood film.  Of course, it would be difficult to tell this story…and most sports films for that matter…without being a little bit sappy in the process.  Some scenes could have done without the extraneous music with painfully obvious lyrics about racial reconciliation and triumphalism.  However, this is all overshadowed, thankfully, by two strong performances from both Freeman and Damon.  There is a lightness to Freeman’s performance of Mandela that does not rob the role of its gravity but prevents it from being too weighty.  His accent, pacing, and mannerisms seem pitch perfect and not the least bit overdone.  Damon’s accent isn’t painful either, and whatever workout regimen he adhered to worked because he is physically believable as a rugby player.

Of course, racial reconciliation is at the heart of Invictus, even if the racial makeup of the Springboks does not mirror the larger society.  However, their victory and improbable success do unite black and white South Africans in the stands, but one wonders how effectively this togetherness will work (worked) outside the stadium.  More relevant, perhaps, are the scenes that involve the President’s security detail.  First, only black guards work for Mandela, but he then quickly appoints several white special service agents as well, men who probably harassed black South Africans until very recently.  To make matters worse, the security office is not much larger than a broom closet.  These “enemies” are forced to work together and plan their duties in confined quarters.  Yet they are united in a common purpose, and in carrying out their duties, they gradually let their guard down to one another.

I am mindful of a line from the series Battlestar Galactica in which one character tells another, “You have been corrupted by your experiences.”  This has stuck with me for quite some time.  In Invictus, Mandela, his security detail, and Francois and his team have all been corrupted by their experiences…that is, they can no longer settle into their old ways of thinking about “the other.”  Francois has spent significant time in conversation with Mandela and has even taken his team to the prison in which the President was formerly held.  Perhaps such corruption is the ingredient for us to break down the worldviews that restrict flourishing lives and relationships, blocking our victories over injustices in our lives.

While Eastwood’s previous film, Gran Torino (2008), is perhaps a more complex look at race relations and racism (albeit in contemporary American culture), Invictus is certainly a more uplifting narrative that also has important spiritual insight as well.

Invictus (134 mins.) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and is in theaters everywhere.