William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”, written in 1875, is said to have been a powerful source of inspiration for Nelson Mandela during the 27 years he was kept a prisoner in Apartheid South Africa. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and four years later became South Africa’s president after helping to end Apartheid and introduce democratic elections. Director Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus portrays Mandela as a man of great intelligence, compassion and fairness. Mandela was all too aware that great tensions still existed in South Africa and that the only way for his nation to heal was through forgiveness but also for the people to develop a sense of unity. Mandela seized upon the opportunity provided by South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup to make the national South African rugby team, the Springboks, a source of inspiration for all South Africans, black and white. Invictus portrays the PR campaign and series of rugby matches that resulted.
Adapted from the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by journalist John Carlin, Invictus is an examination of the relationship between sport and politics. Invictus never gets too much deeper than establishing this connection in its precise historical context but it does convincingly demonstrate the incredible importance and significance a sports game can have to a nation. During the scenes depicting the cup you very quickly find yourself cheering on the Springbok’s knowing how profound the outcome of the matches will be.
Working with Eastwood for the third time after Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, Morgan Freeman gives one of his best performances to date as Nelson Mandela. Freeman beautifully captures Mandela’s charisma, confidence and genuine enthusiasm for both rugby and reconciliation. Matt Damon is also convincing as the South African sporting hero François Pienaar the Springbok team captain. However, many of the best moments in Invictus occur during the scenes depicting Mandela’s security team who are a combination of Mandela’s personal guards and ex-Apartheid Special Branch men. The initially tense dynamic between the security men functions as a microcosm for black and white relations within South Africa, creating an enjoyable subplot throughout the film.
Invictus begins as a political biopic, ends as a sports film and is entertaining throughout. Eastwood is one of the most reliable and assured directors working today and like most of his films Invictus combines his disciplined approach to filmmaking with his calm desire to not rush proceedings in order to allow the story to leisurely unfold. There is nothing particularly remarkable about Invictus but it suitably delivers plenty of emotive moments that are hard to not be swept away by and the final rugby game is suitably exhilarating.