Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: Unconquerable souls

Clint Eastwood’s retelling of the Springbok’s stunning 1995 World Cup victory makes reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa look a little too easy

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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“Inspiration” is a word that occurs frequently throughout Invictus, and inspiring is certainly what this film strives to be. And it succeeds, perhaps a little too well for its own good.

For those with even a smidgen of skepticism about truth and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa, there is a sense of being bludgeoned with Clint Eastwood’s sunny message of hope and the unlimited potential of man to shape his destiny for the better.

This is not to say that Invictus is a bad movie, or even a thoughtless one. It simply decides that it will, in the words of the Monty Python song, “always look on the bright side of life.”

The stage is set economically, first in a sequence that zooms out from well-fed white kids training at rugby on beautifully tended grounds to encompass a scratch game of soccer between bare-foot blacks in a rubble strewn field across the road.

Along this road comes the newly elected Nelson Mandela (played with an almost Christ-like benignity by Morgan Freeman), who is clearly destined to bridge this divide with his belief in tolerance and understanding. Subsequently, Mandela welcomes white staffers at the presidential office, many of whom are already packed in preparation for being booted out by the new black president. When Mandela’s security chief asks for more staff, he gets landed with a bunch of white, SAS-trained hard boys who, it turns out, are nice guys whose intentions are good — to paraphrase another song — but who have been

sadly misunderstood.

Mandela’s powers to bring about reconciliation between entrenched enemies are just a little bit too magical, and as a storyteller, Eastwood treads very lightly in dealing with the fear and hatred that generations of apartheid fostered between the races. The mutual suspicions are presented in the film in such a slight, almost negligible way, that reconciliation comes too easily.

Fortunately, this is only one half of the film.

The other half focuses on the film’s other major star, Matt Damon, who plays the part of Francois Pienaar, the beleaguered captain of the demoralized South African national rugby side, the Springboks. The main narrative thrust of the film is how this team, with the moral support of a black president who had no love for the white-dominated sport of rugby, managed to bring South Africa together behind its effort to win the 1995 rugby World Cup.

A knowledge or love of rugby union is not a requirement for audiences of Invictus, for this is a sports movie only tangentially. The stadium is simply an arena in which the underdog Springboks get to demonstrate the inspirational force that has been injected into them through their captain from Mandela.

Damon does a splendid job as Pienaar, never overplaying his part, and has bulked up and dumbed down very effectively as a thoughtful if not particularly articulate sportsman, and his efforts to make sense not just of Mandela’s message, but also of his own career, are presented in a few deft brush strokes.

The poem by William Ernest Henley that gives the film its title, with its passionate faith in the power of individuals to transform their world, stands at the center of the film. The lines “I am the master of my fate//I am the captain of my soul,” stand as a kind of mission statement for the film which would otherwise have to be expressed by the scriptwriters themselves.

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