‘Invictus’: How Mandela used rugby to heal a nation

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 10, 2009 12:58pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Only Clint Eastwood would make an inspirational sports movie without the big halftime pep talk. And “Invictus” is better for it.

Eastwood directed this based-on-fact story set during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was held in South Africa in the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.

South Africa’s own rugby team was unheralded in that competition, but — well, I guess you’ll have to see the movie to see how that comes out.

I doubt that Eastwood has much interest in rugby (the movie doesn’t make it comprehensible to outsiders), but the film offers a fine, old-fashioned demonstration of how to make a “Great Man” film.

Too many film bios of famous people try to cover absolutely everything and become a parade of shapeless events. “Invictus” focuses on a particular episode in Mandela’s life, thus suggesting the man’s character by portraying it through a single story.

Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, a casting decision hard to argue with. We meet him when he is released from his prison in 1990 (Eastwood has some fun nudging us about the parallels between one country’s first black president and another more current example), but most of the picture is set in ’95.

Anthony Peckham’s screenplay provides a microcosm of Mandela’s approach toward healing South Africa after the brutal apartheid years. The film suggests that since reconciliation, not punishment, was Mandela’s strategy, he used the rugby team (the Springboks) as a crafty symbolic tool.

Mandela’s support for the rugby squad was not an obvious choice: As the movie puts it, the Springboks were closely identified with the white-separatist regime and many black South Africans disliked the team. So Mandela’s embrace of rugby was a calculated political act — and a shrewd one.

“Invictus” conveys all this with director Eastwood’s usual calm. The movie’s not always subtle in some of its peripheral effects (Eastwood loves the kind of cutaway vignettes that worked better in, say, the 1940s), but it’s blessedly free of hype.

He can’t think of enough for Matt Damon, as rugby squad captain Francois Pienaar, to do. But Damon brings his usual dogged commitment to the role anyway.

Instead of the big halftime pep talk, we get a forceful early speech from Mandela to the council that wants to abolish the Springboks. And surely the strongest sequence comes when Pienaar visits the prison cell where Mandela spent 27 years.

A voiceover in that sequence recites “Invictus,” the Victorian poem Mandela has recommended to Pienaar. That poem would make a formidable halftime speech, but here it’s used in a much finer way.


Old-fashioned treatment of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an occasion for national unity in host country South Africa. Clint Eastwood directs in calm (if not always subtle) fashion, with a shrewd take on how Mandela understood the power of symbolic gestures in healing South Africa’s terrible history of apartheid. Matt Damon co-stars.

Rated: PG-13 for language

Showing: Alderwood, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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