When it’s on: Saturday, 19 August (10.45 pm)
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.
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.