Invictus (review)

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A Whole New Ball Game

Hoorah! Nelson Mandela united South Africans, black and white, and overcame their long-held suspicions and hatred and bigotries in the postapartheid upheaval by getting them to refocus their hate on Australia and New Zealand. Or at least on their stupid rugby players. Hoorah!

Oh, but I kid Invictus, because I’m mad. I don’t give a jock’s strap who wins the baseball games in Yankee Stadium a few miles from my house, never mind which national rugby team won the World Cup in 1995 in a country that could not be further away on the planet from me than South Africa is. I might potentially find myself caught up in the art and philosophy of baseball, a gentle, pastoral game (as George Carlin once reminded us). But rugby is worse than soccer, worse than American football: it’s just a bunch of beefy guys engaging in ritualized warfare, slamming into one another and getting their heads rattled… and they don’t even wear any protection or padding. They’re freakin’ insane. And so are the people who cheer them on.
Lunatics, I tell you. Lunatics.

And still there I was, sobbing like a baby over this movie, wondering where I might learn how to sing the South African national anthem. Maybe I can buy one of those green Springbok practice jerseys on eBay…

Of course, it’s not really about rugby at all, this elegant, deeply affecting film: it’s about people’s capacity to change, which every once in a rare while — as in the surprisingly nondisastrous South African revolution — turns out to actually exist. Based on the book Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], a British journalist who befriended Nelson Mandela during his release from prison and ascension to the South African presidency, Invictus is a marvel of a portrait of a moment in time when things could have gone badly wrong but for the quiet, determined leadership that showed everyone another way. Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, Wanted) inhabits Nelson Mandela here as a force of nature, but a placid one, though such a thing sounds impossible. On the day he takes office as president, he pushes his black security team to work with the white special forces officers who’d protected the outgoing white president, because he doesn’t want those who represent him to reflect only one color, one language, or one culture.

The mistrust and the anger among these two teams of bodyguards seems like nothing, however, next to the task that consumes this film: Mandela’s quest to get black South Africans to accept the Springboks, a hated emblem of Afrikaner rule (the team has only one black member, and cheering them on is exclusively a white thing; the blacks prefer soccer), as their own, as a way to let the Afrikaner minority see themselves as still South African too. Mandela buddies himself up with the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon [The Informant!, Ponyo], rocking a South African accent and bulked up to rugby size), and starts to work his mellow magic on the white boy, urging him on — without ever saying so — to lead the team to a victory in the World Cup, a year away. It’s a tall order, not just getting all of South Africa to accept the team, but getting the team in shape to win: they’re not very good as Mandela’s taking office…

The sports-averse like me needn’t fear: this isn’t a movie about practice sessions and pep talks… unless you want to consider Mandela’s gentle persuading of everyone to let the past go as a national pep talk, or hell, even one suitable for the whole planet. Freeman is as magnetic as Mandela, and the magic works on us, too: the unforced grace of Anthony Peckham’s (the upcoming Sherlock Holmes, Don’t Say a Word) script and Clint Eastwood’s (Gran Torino, Changeling) direction lets the optimism of Mandela’s perspective — which can sound hopelessly naive, given what we know of human nature: reconcile? with our oppressors? — end up feeling like the most obvious thing in the world. Like, why didn’t someone think of this before? (Some people did, of course, but we so rarely see it in action, and so successfully.)

Which isn’t to say, either, that when Mandela walks out on the rugby pitch to wish the Springboks luck in that final World Cup game, and the mostly white crowd — the same people who believed their country was going to the dogs with Mandela’s release — chants his name, that it doesn’t feel like fantasy. Hopeful, powerful, stirring fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. If this happened once, why can’t it happen some more?

Watch Invictus online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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Wed, Dec 09, 2009 7:40pm

I KNEW this would be a wonderful movie. I’m so glad I wasn’t wrong. I can’t wait to see it.

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 3:37am

I can’t wait to see this film – Morgan Freeman is always brilliant, Matt Damon is mostly so, and plus I love rugby (yes indeed, I am insane! It’s a thug’s game played by gentlemen, as they say, and it’s great) and into that mix you get quite possibly the most inspiring man I’ll see in my lifetime.

As an aside, part of the reason I love rugby is that it’s almost totally devoid of that sort of tribal hatred and violence that football (soccer for some) seems to drag around with it here in the UK. Football matches are accompanied by riot police and fans of each team/country playing have to be kept seperate to avoid violence – and still there were people beating the hell out of each other after a Millwall match a month or so ago. You go to a rugby match at Twickenham and whether it’s national, six nations or an international, you sit beside the French/Italians/South Africans/Aussies/Samoans (or whoever), have a laugh, and trundle off down the pub with them afterwards. This story would not have worked with any other sport, I don’t think.

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 12:57pm

“But rugby is worse than soccer, worse than American football: it’s just a bunch of beefy guys engaging in ritualized warfare, slamming into one another and getting their heads rattled…”

You clearly have no appreciation for world culture or sport outside the dearly-held NFL, NBA, and NHL. Perhaps you should urge Congress to form an “UnAmerican Activities Committee” that would ban propaganda films such as this one, which seek to–among many other important things–enlighten the sheltered masses of largely uncultured Americans.

Glad u seem to have liked the film otherwise…

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 1:23pm

Way to over react JC… MAJ isn’t really a sports fan at all. She was pointing out, (correctly) that rugby is closer to a pitched battle than just about any other sport. If you read more than one post on the site, you’d see she’s very unlikely to get her pants in a twist over un-Americanism.

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 2:51pm

You clearly have no appreciation for world culture or sport outside the dearly-held NFL, NBA, and NHL.

Actually, I have no appreciation for the NFL, NBA, or NHL either.

But you clearly have no appreciation for literary tricks like hyperbole…

Sun, Dec 13, 2009 7:14pm

I’m interested in the sound of this, as I do have a soft spot for rugby (it helps that I can just about follow the rules for it…)! And Nelson Mandela is a great man.

As Isobel said, its partly because it’s a far better atmosphere surrounds the sport – I once was on the last train heading into Cardiff before the very first match played in the Millennium Stadium, packed full of Welsh fans. If they’d been footie fans, I’d have been terrified, as it was, they were laughing and joking and passed my luggage down as I got off the stop before. I used to stay in my flat last year when Hibs were playing at home, watching the mounted police trot by.

It’s also a sport where they pound each other on the pitch, and get along quite happily afterwards. Players from both sides will pull each other up off the floor, or check if someone’s hurt. (And there’s a guy on the Welsh team who looks like Peter Jackson circa LOTR).

I might suggest this film to my Dad, he’s a true Rugby fan (as befits a boy from the Valleys.

Mon, Dec 14, 2009 1:46pm

Before you see this film, make sure you have seen Gran Torino. It doesn’t matter if you know or care about rugy or if you can find South Africa on a map. It does matter that you realize that Invictus is about reconciliation: the unlikely story of getting the people of a divided country to trust each other after generations of racial struggles. As a white American, I lived in apartheid South Africa. It was horrible. I lived there again in 1999. The transformation (which is still far from complete) was amazing. A generation removed from paranoid, unfettered racism I found optimism among the next generation of non-whites and respect for Nelson Mandela and understanding of the need for change among whites (well, at least those still living there–a lot of the more disingenuous whites left as soon as their privileged status was threatened).

Back to the movie. I would guess that if Morgan Freeman had not already made a prison movie (Shawshank Redemption), then Clint Eastwood would not have picked the rugby story to carry his message. Rugby is a good vehicle because it turned out just right in 1995, and this way Clint didn’t have to deal with Madiba’s messy personal life (Winnie in particular). Anyhow, great movie. We will be seeing a lot of South Africa because of the World Cup; I hope the country benefits from the spotlight from both that event and Invictus. We can all learn a lot from what is really the world’s newest democracy.

francois williams
francois williams
Mon, Dec 14, 2009 2:49pm

Hi Maryan, this is the info on the SA National Anthem…

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa la matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika – South Afrika.

Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.


The isiXhosa and isiZulu of the first stanza, the Sesotho of the second stanza and the Afrikaans of the third stanza translate into English as follows:

Lord, bless Africa
May her spirit rise high up
Hear thou our prayers
Lord bless us.

Lord, bless Africa
Banish wars and strife
Lord, bless our nation
Of South Africa.

Ringing out from our blue heavens
From our deep seas breaking round
Over everlasting mountains
Where the echoing crags resound …

History: two anthems into one

Before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the country had two anthems – an official and an unofficial one. The official anthem was Die Stem, in English The Call of South Africa. The unofficial anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, was a symbol of independence and resistance to apartheid, sung by the majority of the population and at all anti-apartheid rallies and gatherings.

In the official anthem of the new South Africa, the two anthems merge into one.

Die Stem van Suid Afrika (The Call of South Africa)

Die Stem van Suid Afrika was originally a poem, written by CJ Langenhoven in May 1918. The music was composed by the Reverend ML de Villiers in 1921. At the time, the South African Broadcasting Corporation played both God save the King and Die Stem to close their daily radio broadcasts, and so the public became familiar with the Afrikaans anthem.

Die Stem was first sung publicly at the official hoisting of the national flag in Cape Town on 31 May 1928, but it was not until 2 May 1957 that the government accepted it as the official national anthem. In 1962 the English version, The Call of South Africa, was accepted for official use.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

Nkosi was composed in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a Methodist mission school teacher. The words of the first stanza were originally written in isiXhosa as a hymn. Seven additional stanzas in isiXhoza were later added by the poet Samuel Mqhayi. A Sesotho version was published by Moses Mphahlele in 1942.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was popularised at concerts held in Johannesburg by Reverend JL Dube’s Ohlange Zulu Choir. It became a popular church hymn that was later adopted as an anthem at political meetings, sung as an act of defiance.

The first stanza is generally sung in isiXhosa or isiZulu, followed by the Sesotho version. Apparently there is no standard version or translations of Nkosi, and the words may vary from place to place and from occasion to occasion.

SAinfo reporter

Sun, Dec 20, 2009 7:04pm

I’ve always despised SA. Like any ordinary American, I’ve only read of the evils.Mandela,
I’ve heard the same bits and pieces. This movie gave me a better scope of everything.Rugby was a good vehicle to tie the info around an understandable drama. The info, unlike a documentary filters in through a big screen osmosis. The film moved me 10 times more than
Avatar (I know a shabby comparison-apples and Kumquats).Morgan Freeman was great, Eastwood, being able to pick and choose, somehow is destined to leave the planet promoting an understanding of the multicultural worlds (all men bleed red blood). I got to hand to to Clint:
Way to Go, Dirty Harry!

Unrelated note: A wide shot of SA’s shanty
squalor had me expecting an Alien from District 9 to come jogging out (playing w/ rugby ball?).