"Forgiveness liberates the soul," remarks Morgan Freeman's Nelson Mandela soon after he takes office as South Africa's first black president in Invictus. That's the overriding message of Clint Eastwood's latest - a movie that's a rousing mix of political biopic and triumphant sports picture. It tells of Mandela's efforts to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unify a country in the aftermath of apartheid, riding on a wave of positive sentiment that carries it through the unavoidable clichés of the genre.
Recreating real life is tricky ground for filmmakers, particularly when the event is etched firmly in history. Combining it with sport, something that always seems to lose its impact on film, makes life even more difficult for Invictus (a real sporting match is unscripted, unpredictable and can be an emotional rollercoaster - filtered through Hollywood the outcome is preordained and often lacking punch). What the film loses in the element of surprise, it more than makes up for in its portrait of Mandela by delving into why he's such an extraordinary human being.
As Mandela's ANC party takes over and the apartheid falls, he recognises that the divide between blacks and Afrikaners is still strong, and racial tensions threaten to hold back the country. With the Rugby World Cup forthcoming, he approaches the national team's captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) and suggests that securing the trophy can bind South Africa together. The only problem being that the Springboks are rank outsiders and have just one black player in their side, Chester Williams. In their first meeting, Mandela asks Pienaar about leadership. The player says he tries to lead by example, but Mandela talks of using inspiration from others to effect change. He informs Pienaar that the words of William Ernest Henley's poem 'Invictus' gave him inner strength while he was imprisoned. The message is clear, and the Springboks begin to train rigourously for the finals ("We might not be the best, but we'll be the fittest," says Pienaar).
Freeman's Mandela is avuncular yet unconventional; he understands that sport has the power to bring down barriers between class, culture and race. His faith in the shambolic rugby outfit is a political gamble - during a tense meeting with South Africa's head sports body, he imparts how vital it is that the Springbok green and gold colours (synonymous with Afrikaners) be retained - lose it and the white population goes, too. As Invictus shifts into an underdog sports tale, the on-the-field action takes hold as the team start their run towards an improbable victory.
There's a great moment where Mandela is meeting with Korean delegates and surreptitiously glances at his watch knowing a match is soon to wind up - it's something any sports fan can identify with and a small indication that sometimes a game can become more than just that. The final with New Zealand is a close-run affair as the Springboks stifle the brutish Jonah Lomu but struggle to contain the laser-point accuracy of Andrew Mehrtens's kicking. The end result, though, is never in question, and intriguingly it's the director's son Scott Eastwood (as Joel Stransky) who's integral in the closing moments of extra time.
Freeman's performance is a fine tribute to Mandela, perfectly capturing his grin, posture and unbreakable upbeatness. The 27 years in prison could have left a lesser man stewing and furious at the people who put him away, but his ability to forgive, move on and send that feeling out to his country is what makes Invictus a winner.
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