‘Rugby is’ as Oscar Wilde noted on behalf of the sane and humane ‘a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the centre of the city.’ Clint Eastwood’s new film Invictus not only invites the bullies back within the city walls but hands them the Nobel Peace Prize. Based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation Invictus recounts how, following his inauguration as President in 1994, Nelson Mandela pulled off the political masterstroke of uniting a racially and economically divided South Africa in support of South Africa’s national rugby team the Springboks, once a symbol of Boer-ish (and boorish) oppression.
Mandela’s game plan was to convince Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Boks to bring his floundering team to victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship and then convince the football-loving majority of South Africa to support a team that comprised of just one black player. Mandela was, in essence, creating a mountain of reconciliation and forgiveness for his justifiably angry country folk to climb. In terms of political gambles it carried with it the possibilities of both euphoria and despair.
Relocating the same production team he has used in his last few films to Cape Town and Johannesburg locations Eastwood brings a no nonsense approach to this loaded material. Focusing in on the relationship between Mandela, played with twitchy serenity by Morgan Freeman, and Matt Damon’s Pienaar, Invictus has a predictable trajectory but one leavened by minute details about the tedium of governance, ingrained prejudices and a belief that hope will always spring eternal.
Eastwood’s penchant for shooting fast and loose doesn’t quite pay off here though. The Boks epiphanic trip to Robben Island, their untroubled rugby workshops in the townships and Mandela’s ridiculous town hall grandstanding to the sports committee (though this is later deflated) and the constant attempts to create false tensions are all problems with Anthony Peckham’s original script, and a filmmaker in less of a hurry would have surely reworked them. Still, Invictus is a work of laudable emotion about the universal language (and politics) of sport, and how, to paraphrase William Ernest Henley’s great poem from which the film takes it’s name – the dust, sweat and blood of the fight are everything.
General release from Fri 5 Feb.