Invictus (2009)

Director: Clint Eastwood

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Movie makers, working in the collective dream factory, are in the mythology business. Familiar stories are told and retold in the best tradition of earlier oral historians and folklorists. And like the hero myths of the classical world and before, a modern hero occasionally emerges whose feats are counted and recounted in songs, stories, and, in our modern way, movies. In an earlier time, biopics about presidents like Lincoln and soldiers like Sergeant York dominated the hero narrative. In more recent years, modern, nonwhite heroes like Gandhi, Malcolm X, Biko, and Ali have taken center stage.

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Now Clint Eastwood, a man deeply interested in chronicling the myths and mores of manhood, has made his trek across violence and its failures to the shores of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow renaissance in racially divided South Africa. Invictus tells the true story of the early days of Mandela’s presidency and how he inspired national unity by throwing his support behind a potent symbol of white supremacy, the national rugby team, the Springboks, in their bid for the 1995 World Cup in their first year of eligibility following the lifting of sanctions against the country. Eastwood’s effort is both more than it appears and less that it has already been hailed—an epic in the grand tradition of the ancient bards and a story of inspiration that denies the whole truth of the story its smart script tells in a deceptively “accurate” fashion.

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The time is 1994. The film gives us the lay of the land and then takes us to a rugby field. Young white teens are playing on a groomed and neatly fenced field, uniformed, coached, and drilling with precision. Across the street behind a battered chain-link fence, black boys in tattered clothes kick around a soccer ball. When a motorcade on the road that separates them approaches, all run to their respective fences. The black boys wave and cheer as the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Eastwood regular Morgan Freeman) parades modestly on his way to his new home in the national capital of Pretoria. On the other side of the road, a coach tells his charges to remember this day as one when “our country went to the dogs.” In this simply explanatory scene, the racial schism in South Africa is economically sketched. The rest of the film concerns how Mandela will stitch it into whole cloth.

Mandela, seeing half the presidential staff packing or already gone, calls those still in the building together. He tells them there will be no repercussions for their past associations and actions, and asks them in his humble, gracious manner to stay and serve their country at this difficult time. Smiles appear on their white faces. Large frowns appear on the faces of his black security force when he sends in white security guards—enforcers that likely tortured and killed many blacks in the bad old days—to work alongside them. “How can we trust them?” one guard asks head of security Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge). “It is what Madiba wishes,” he answers with dismay. “What did you call him?” a white guard (Langley Kirkwood) asks. “Madiba. That’s what WE call him.” “We’ll call him Mr. President,” is the white guard’s chilly response.

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Mandela attends a Springboks game against England. He notes to his private secretary Brenda (Adjoa Andoh) that the whites cheer the Springboks and the blacks cheer England. He did the same when he was imprisoned on Robben Island to annoy the guards. To black South Africans, the Springboks are a hated symbol, but by observing his enemy while incarcerated for 27 years, he learned how much this team means to his white jailors and the rest of white South Africa. He stops an attempt by an all-black South African athletic authority to ban the name and colors of the Springboks and decides, against advice, to stand firmly behind the team in their bid for the World Cup championship. He invites the Afrikaner team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to meet with him, thanking Pienaar profusely for sparing some of his precious time to come to see him. When Pienaar comes out of the meeting to meet his wife Nerine (Marguerite Wheatley), who has been waiting in the car, she asks him what Mandela wanted. “I think he wants us to win the World Cup.” Indeed he does.

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From this point, the film develops as a straightforward, feel-good, sports drama. The black and white security guards play rugby together in the presidential compound, Mandela checks his watch while meeting diplomats to see if he’ll be done by game time, the Springboks go from hapless losers to a mighty Cinderella team. Finally, the entire nation shuts down to watch the World Cup finals against New Zealand, white cops outside Jo’burg’s Ellis Park Stadium, where the game is being played, dancing joyfully with a black boy who has stopped to listen to the neck-and-neck match on their car radio. When the closing credits juxtapose Morgan Freeman in his Springboks jersey and hat with a photo of the real Nelson Mandela in the same outfit, the convergence of myth and reality is complete.

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At its heart, Invictus is a story about self-determination, a subject that resonates through Eastwood’s career, from Dirty Harry asking various criminals “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?” to Bronco Billy’s answer to Miss Lilly’s question about whether he’s for real, “I’m who I want to be,” to Maggie Fitzgerald being given the right to choose to live or die in Million Dollar Baby. A voiceover by Freeman reciting the last lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”) recurs at various points, and Eastwood shoots a scene of Mandela writing the poem out for Pienaar to inspire him and his team to greatness. Mandela believes in the intangible—the power of forgiveness, inspirational words, even the powerful “juju” of the Maori war chant the Springboks’ opponents perform before the opening scrum. Ultimately, his belief in the right of all South Africans to determine their own future—rejecting the theory of separate racial destinies of the apartheidists—is what steeled him to his life’s hard work.

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Since this is a hero’s journey, that which is tangential to the central character’s project gets little more than a quick scrawl. Each character exists to be won over by Mandela’s personal magnetism and the power of the intangible; a scene in which Mandela asks to be quizzed on the names of the team members shows his careful preparation for making people he doesn’t know feel special. Women are helpmates and objects with whom Mandela can flirt. Mandela’s wife Winnie accompanies him out of prison and then is banished from the film; his daughter Zindzi (Bonnie Henna) is introduced as an embittered woman who avoids her father only to be shown to have been won over by his Springboks strategy, cheering the final match on TV. Strange in a film so dedicated to self-determination to have so many people reduced to cardboard cutouts. One of my colleagues calls it Brechtian distancing. I think he is right; it certainly prevented me from feeling emotionally engaged in the final rugby match, which visually was kind of a mess of grunts, smashing bones, and bruising.

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It is also cheat. Brecht used his epic approach to force people to identify with the social milieu of his story, not the characters. Eastwood has decided we need to come together, right now, and it’s hard not to see some parallels with Obama’s good ship Hope. Sadly, Obama and his handlers understood the marketing that helped Mandela charm the masses, but do not seem strong or dedicated enough to push for substance. The reality in South Africa, that Mandela also had to work with the white minority that owned and ran the country, and that the country is still reeling from decades of apartheid economics and social oppression, is not really allowed to register. Maybe we all do need a booster shot of hope, but being real is more than saying what we want to be. We have to be it.

  • RC spoke:
    12th/12/2009 to 9:46 pm

    Interesting thoughts — I haven’t caught this one yet – but from the sound of your review’s and perspective…it sounds like if Obama can win the Nobel Peace Prize than this film might have it’s own Academy glory opportunities soon.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/12/2009 to 9:48 pm

    One doesn’t translate to the other, but you can never count Clint Eastwood out. It’s a well-crafted film, though the stand-out “sports” film of 2009 is Big Fan, which likely won’t even get a nomination. It deserves one for screenplay, though.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    13th/12/2009 to 11:09 pm

    I was no fan at all of this film Marilyn, and thought it the worst of his recent prolific run. For me the relationship between Freeman and Damon never did much off the field, the insights into Mandela’s politics (even if they were not the central concern here) were surface and banal, and the intended inspiring boost of the game did nothing to mitigate the emotional distance of the drama.
    But at some point I’ll see it again, especially after reading this great, great essay.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/12/2009 to 8:33 am

    Thanks again, Sam. I thought it was rather ordinary until Gabe Klinger pointed out the Brechtian aspects. I thought about it and felt that it was Eastwood’s intention to create a myth in this manner, a way I’m not used to seeing Brecht’s technique used. He did it well, and the script was very sturdy in conveying a lot of information very economically. But the myth just seemed bogus to me.

  • Daniel spoke:
    20th/12/2009 to 11:22 pm

    One thing you mention that I didn’t give enough consideration is the presence (or rather absence) of the supporting characters, not including Damon. I don’t think Eastwood could have brought in or flushed out additional characters and still told the story he wanted to tell, but the result is that we really don’t have a full understanding of anyone, including Mandela – your description of him is more full than what is presented in the movie, a result of you already knowing much about the real man, no doubt.
    In any event I didn’t approach this film, flawed as it is, with the expectation of learning about Nelson Mandela, but about how Nelson Mandela used this situation as a leadership strategy. And in that respect I think the film succeeded.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 8:45 am

    It’s always tricky, Daniel, to use a living legend to create a mythic hero. Much better to wait until they’ve been dead a while (or gone out far out of the public eye, as Ali has) and the facts have blurred or lost their immediate relevance. The fact is that this film was not made for South Africans, but rather for Americans who don’t really know much about Mandela or what went on in that country. There is only a scrawl of biography. The real lesson is the soothing of racial tensions, which is applicable to our country and its black-identifying president. Knowing something about S.A. and Mandela actually is a hindrance to the effect of the story Eastwood wanted to tell.

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