If you don’t know rugby, a touchdown is called a try. This movie about the great World Cup rugby game at the beginning of Mandela’s Presidency definitely scores. It takes place when South Africa’s shaky new multiracial democracy was still finding its feet after years of white rule. Mandela needed to make peace and heal the land. He saw an opportunity to create rapprochement and a national bonding experience by embracing the game beloved by his former enemy and despised by his supporters.
However, there are also some fumbles - the other meaning if you will – of “try”.
Without doubt, Morgan Freeman gives an Oscar-worthy reincarnation of Mandela – thus putting himself firmly in the King-Poitier-Ali-Crosby-Oprah-Obama pantheon of black-people who radically changed white perceptions. Matt Damon too, gives a great aw-shucks performance as an innocent racist who understands how much he has to change. You’ll barely recognize this bulked up version of Damon and his South African accent is flawless. But, for the most part they are stock characters – you don’t really know what makes Mandela tick and you can’t fully grasp the transformation of Pienaar (Damon), the rugby captain, because you just don’t know that much about him.
While the movie works well at the storytelling level, it also rings somewhat hollow. You see this momentous change in a terrible political situation through old newscasts but not through the cast. The black presidential security detail has to make peace with white special service cops who may once have jailed them. The white cops are now reporting to people who may once have tried to blow them up. But you see none of this in personal backstories. The pacing is slow but it is steady and it builds. The end may be predictable but the audience still applauded. If you have no idea what rugby is you will leave the theater unenlightened and those of us who know about rugby can see the ball was somehow dropped.
Therein lies the problem: this is a movie about symbols, the kind that can bring everyone together, make peace and bind a nation. If you can’t really explain the true nature of rugby, you can’t really explain its significance in this story. As for the title: what is a nice Latin word like Invictus doing in an African movie? Shouldn’t Mandela - just one generation away from living in a hut with a polygamous family - be reaching back to an African poem for inspiration? Wouldn’t you expect something more African than classical?
In a way, it echoes the story of the kouros statue the Getty Museum once acquired. Scientists analyzed the stone and lawyers certified the paper trail. But when Thomas Hoving of the Met took one look at it, he knew it was fake because it looked “fresh” – something you don’t expect in a 3,000 year old statue. In fact, it was a modern reproduction made from authentic stone from that period.
That is not to say this movie is a fake but it is obviously made – well made, mind you – by people of a different age, place and time who have fused the authentic with something that isn’t quite right. The author is a British journalist who covered South Africa, the screenwriter is a non-rugby loving ex-patriate South African living in Morro Bay, California. The supporting actors and Damon’s voice coach are all authentic South Africans but the director and the two lead actors are American. As good a job as they did technically, something got lost in the mix. Instead of being too lively, this movie is, if anything, muted - even somber. You’d have to wonder what it would look like if a South African director had made it. What if, say, Gavin Wood (Tsotsi) or an up-and-coming African director had done it, how different would it would be?
First, you would get a visceral sense of the times. People were very scared, very divided but also hopeful. The townships were bursting with exuberance. The whites experienced fear, loathing but also optimism. You see it in Invictus but you really don’t feel it. The celebration of the blacks matched the viciousness of the old white regime while the crime spree justified their old fears. Houses once designed to be open - even admired - became surrounded with walls, then barbed wire, power gates and finally, electrified fences. Yet the whites felt somehow liberated too and to understand that you’d have to see how war and rebellion-weary they had become. You never quite feel the two different cultures – an African world drenched in music, dance and excitement versus a stiff, though cordial white world where the music is at best, restrained.
Most of all though, you would understand why rugby really matters. It is not just that the white Afrikaners were the country’s exclusive payers of rugby, it is that it’s a territorial game. Rugby is played around the scrum, that beehive formation of men from each team pushing against each other in contention for a ball thrust in its midst at the beginning of each play. Whichever team plucks it out – usually by foot – gets to run with the ball. The traditional advantage of the South African team is that they are one of the heaviest in the game. That is why Damon filled up on pap ‘n wors for the role. The heavier the scrum the better the chance they have of pushing the other team out of the way and grabbing the ball.
The point about rugby in South Africa is not just that it is the game of the oppressors but a kind of reenactment of the way they pushed the indigenous people off the land to get at its resources. That explains why the formerly great Bokke had lost their mojo. Thanks to majority rule, they were being pushed off their land and they just couldn’t pull off their old act on the rugby field any more. At least, not until they had gotten permission, marching orders and reassurance from the new black president.
The poem, Invictus, is never fully fleshed out and in truth it was an obscure 19th century poem written by a 12 year old who’d lost his leg to TB. While understandably awkward as a poem it ends with these two resounding lines:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
In fact, Mandela never sent that poem to Pienaar. He had been inspired by it in jail but he actually sent the rugby captain a version of Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech to inspire him.
Regardless of the actual poem, what matters is that Mandela reached out to a third place – a non-African heritage - to bring these former warring Africans of different races together. How do you explain that to Americans? They see these great aerial shots of Cape Town, the sophisticated cities contrasted with the black shantytowns (although you never go into any of these “informal” houses) and they must wonder: What Africa is this?
That is not say this isn’t a very good movie. It is not “Biko”, “Gandhi” or even “Chariots of Fire” though it is at least at the very front of the second tier. There is an academy award nomination or two in this and Clint deserves kudos for taking on something so far afield from his usual fare: Dirty Harry reincarnated as a couple of near-saints. As a feel-good movie it does indeed score: almost everyone wins – the whites, the blacks (he did forget the Jewish guy, Joel Stransky, a kind of South African Sandy Koufax who actually won the game with the drop kick.) The New Zealanders - ironically called the “All Blacks” on account of their uniforms - get to be the losers here even though they were a much more racially integrated team.
Not only that, but the All Blacks began each game with a fearsome Maori wardance called a Hakka which seemed to be lead by the blondest player. All the Bokke could do was glare back. But any South African knows they have their own ceremonial weapon, which is just as formidable: the Zulu War Dance. Yet no one mentions it – perhaps because Afrikaner rugby players don’t dance like that – ever - and Mandela was Xhosa as were most of the ruling ANC party and they were feuding with the Zulus. The New Zealanders even had rugby’s first true superstar, Jonah Loma, a terrifying figure who could simply plough through the opposing team with legs as thick and as unstoppable as tree trunks rolling down a cliff.
Nevertheless, Mandela’s support, Afrikaner determination and a little Hebrew footwork won the day and put the country on the track toward unity. In the end, this movie wins the cup but you get the idea there is more to be drunk from it along with a few more visits to the well.
© Alan Brody