"We have to surprise them with compassion and generosity."


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Like its central figure, “Invictus” is both humble and inspiring. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon resist the temptation to sentimentalize a dramatic story while director Clint Eastwood resists the lure of trying to tell too much of Nelson Mandela’s story in one film. So here is one slice of his life, beautifully filmed and acted.

            In February of 1990 Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after 30 years in prison. After assuming the presidency of South Africa he begins work with a staff carefully picked to reflect the old world and the new. Black and white security guards are left to work it out among themselves, often with resentment, but Mandela would not settle for sweeping into office with only supporters.

            After England beats South Africa in the World Cup tournament, Mandela fastens on rugby as the symbol his country needs as it refashions itself after Apartheid. A symbol of Apartheid, the Springbok rugby team, he thought, could be a highly visible and tangible sign of the success Mandela planned to achieve. Rejecting calls for a new name and new flag – “I believe we should restore Springbok and their colors” – he sets about implementing his plan. “We have to surprise them with compassion and generosity.”

            With the opposition still in control of the army and the police, Mandela saw clearly that “You don’t reinforce the cycle by taking away their rugby and their anthem. In a culture of shifting tides and allegiances, Mandela seems nearly alone in his belief that a rugby team can be the metaphor for moral rebirth. But when he watches the bodyguards, black and white, moving closer to one another, he knows he is right. “This country is hungry for greatness.” He wants to give it to them.

            As the rugby team rebuilds itself, aided by a stream of encouraging gestures and visits from Mandela, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) rises to the challenge as captain and leader. In turn, his team understands the measure of his commitment. Standing for a moment in the cell that contained Mandela for three decades, Francois says, “He spent 30 years in a cell and came out ready to forgive the people who put him there.” It is a scene acted beautifully by Matt Damon who stretches his arms out silently to touch the walls of the cell, the physical measure of the imprisonment.

            Damon endows Francois with the deep humility of the man he so admires. The two of them, quietly, prepare us for the World Cup game between New Zealand and South Africa. Because the film has been directed so softly by Clint Eastwood (with original music by his son, Kyle), we are surprised by the surge of emotion that washes over the audience – the exact symbolic inspiration Mandela had foreseen. It is a measure of Clint Eastwood’s intelligence that he carried us so gently to the certainty that Mandela was right. Rugby was the perfect symbol. Invictus indeed.


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