Invictus (2009)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 August (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The Rugby World Cup is here, and to celebrate ITV are screening perhaps the only appropriate film they could (I can only think of This Sporting Life otherwise, but suggesting that they put on a movie about League is pretty much heretical). It’s a good one. Invictus concerns itself with South Africa’s famous victory in the tournament when it was played there in 1995, an unlikely one also as the host nation was largely unfancied, especially with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu casting a looming shadow over all competition. But really it’s about much more than that. The contest was symbolic of ‘the Rainbow Nation’s attempts to unite its racially diverse population after decades of Apartheid and oppression. President Nelson Mandela recognised the importance of sport as a unifying principle, and allied himself with Springboks captain, Franois Pienaar, in emphasising the team’s success as key to the country’s well-being.

It’s only twenty years ago since the events depicted in Invictus took place, so it’s relatively fresh in our minds, indeed as a teenager I remember doing some work on South Africa as part of my History GCSE. Back then, Apartheid was still in full swing under the auspices of President Botha. The country faced sanctions from the world’s community. Mandela remained a political prisoner, the subject of a popular song from The Specials whilst the refectories we frequented later at university were invariably named after him. His release in 1990 was one of those world events you needed to see. Watching the stooped figure of this little old man walk to freedom was important; his rise to the presidency mattered, but in South Africa things were naturally more complicated as the country remained divided along racial lines and was sinking into financial ruin.

The pressure on Mandela must have been enormous, and it’s his attempts to overcome the massive issues he faced as President that form the film’s focus. ‘Madiba’ (as he’s affectionately called by the people, referencing an 18th century chief) is played by Morgan Freeman, the sort of casting decision that seems a ridiculously obvious ‘Hollywood’ thing to do before you forget it’s a world famous actor you’re watching and that he completely submerges himself into the part. The old joke goes that after taking on roles of the American President (Deep Impact) and God (Bruce Almighty), Nelson Mandela was the only way up, and Freeman puts in a note perfect study, mimicking the man’s posture uncannily well along with taking on the clipped accent. Another A-lister, Matt Damon, plays Pienaar, the embodiment of healthy white South African masculinity who crucially comes to believe in the President’s cause as the mens’ relationship develops.

Early in the film, there are perceived death threats against Mandela that never materialise, highlighting both the tensions within the country and latent paranoia of the security staff who surround him. A sub-plot has black and white bodyguards mixing, at first very uneasily and then bonding over the growing interest in the home nation’s successes at the World Cup. It’s a little cloying, but it still works well enough, the emerging friendship between the security staff serving as a microcosm of South Africa’s enhanced sense of unity. ‘Invictus’ is the title of a poem Mandela held close to his heart whilst serving out his lengthy prison service on Robben Island. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pienaar and his fellow Springboks visit the jail, the captain clearly affected by the harsh conditions faced by his leader and friend.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports films, thinking they struggle as a rule to replicate the unscripted drama, twists and turns of an actual sporting event. This one does well, though, and who would imagine that rugby union would provide the ideal game for some brilliantly mounted footage? Invictus was directed by Clint Eastwood, who uses the camera to invade the middle of scrums and team huddles, shooting in places you would never get to see in a real-life match to focus on the human struggle and emotion. The final is especially good, emphasising the grunts of big men clashing on the pitch, the crunch of bodies colliding, the way crowd noises are enhanced and then reduced as audience participation becomes a critical part of the spectacle and then nothing as the players concentrate fully on what they’re trying to do.

I really like Invictus, partly because Eastwood is probably the perfect man to have made it. A great deal of the film’s content is emotionally driven, Mandela its clear hero and core as he battles age-old prejudices, his own failing health and the broken relationships with his family that can never be healed. A lesser director might have made these moments cloying, writing those struggles large, over-egging the frustration of patrician whites as they fail to come to terms with South Africa’s new reality. All these elements are present in Invictus, but Eastwood at his best makes the sort of films where they’re just shown as part of the action, shooting scenes and leaving viewers to join the dots, which is just how it should be. There are moments when the sense of manipulation seeps through – the team’s visit to an impoverished slum to teach street kids about the basics of rugby, a black kid who winds up as obsessed with the radio commentary of the final as a pair of cops – but that doesn’t happen very often, and instead Eastwood lets the events speak for themselves. One of my favourite things about the film is that the story is good enough for dramatic cinema and scenes that feel scripted actually happened. The bit where a Boeing 747 flew low over Ellis Park, which was about to host the final, bearing a message of good luck to the Springboks, was real and is recaptured nicely. YouTube footage of the moment shows just how well Invictus depicts it.

Invictus: ****

PS. An apology for the lateness of this entry (it would normally appear at midnight). It’s been a heavy, heavy week at work and the prospect of coming home to spend more time sat at a computer was something I couldn’t quite manage physically, hence the delayed posting.

13 Replies to “Invictus (2009)”

  1. I saw this in the cinema on release but not since. I remember liking it well enough and the way it managed to blend sport (not usually my favorite subject for a film) and the wider political and social changes taking place. Pretty good performances all round and told in that old-fashioned and economical way by Eastwood.

    1. Thanks Colin, I agree Eastwood’s approach really works in telling the story. He lets the tale and characters lead, doesn’t overload the narrative with heavy handed symbolism because it just isn’t necessary and lets the whole thing flow. It’s a real favourite in this house.

  2. I’ve never quite made time for this, and am both surprised and somehow not that it’s 6 years old. It seemed to get quite a muted reception on release, so I guess it was never loved nor hated enough to make it feel like a must-get-round-to. But I really must get round to it. I watched American Sniper the other night, so it might make a good, sort of, Eastwood palate cleanser…

    1. Thanks Bob, sports movies are never a ‘must see this now’ instance for me so I was really pleasantly surprised, and Clint did a great job of letting the events speak for themselves rather than try to hammer home his humanitarian points, so it was worth it from that angle also. I hope you get to watch it, and I should do the same with American Sniper, which apart from the identity of the director held little appeal for me.

      1. I didn’t find Sniper as distastefully bad as some people, but I think Clint was on autopilot (there are some dreadful clichés in his direction) and its perspective on events is… dubious.

  3. Great review. Saw this one at the cinema with my folks and its low key presentation was a real breath of fresh air in an age of operatic overstatement. I’m not really much of a sports fan either but this is a very decent movie.

    1. Thanks Sergio. That’s nice to say about enjoying it despite not being a sport fan, but then it’s only a sport film to an extent, and even then featuring a sport that doesn’t often lend itself to dramatic cinema. My son, 15, is a massive fan of this one; his reason is that it’s just a nice film, it leaves him in a good place, and that sounds as good a recommendation to me as any.

      1. I rewatched MILLION DOLLAR BABY the other weekend – the sport aspect is crucial but its not what makes it a great (and tragic) film. Freeman is terribly good in that one too of course and indeed it may be my favourite Eastwood movie (so far – what an amazing run he’s having).

      2. I have to admit to being left a little underwhelmed by it and I’m not even sure why. I really like his westerns though – Unforgiven obviously, also The Outlaw Josey Wales. Of his earlier directorial efforts I got to try Play Misty for Me for the first time recently; I thought it was incredible, the sort of story that’s perfectly suited to his sparing approach. He’s not too bad on the whole, is he?

      3. Perhaps just a case of giving it another chance, matey. I remember from that year liking THE AVIATOR better and feeling it was bit robbed at the Oscars, but both films have power, certainly.

      4. I like AVIATOR a lot but in some ways ways you could argue that BABY is much more controversial by the time it reaches its conclusion. And I love the fact that they never, ever, discuss what happened to the other boxer, which again, is so unusual nowadays.

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