What it's about:
The story of South Africa’s inspirational win in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and how Nelson Mandela helped the Springboks become a symbol of reconciliation for the country.
What we thought:
There will be a time, long from now, when no one remembers what the old "New South Africa" was like, and the events that made it such a unique, exciting time in our country’s history will become fuzzy memories. Invictus may not be the sports movie or drama that we hoped it would be, but in transporting us Rainbow denizens back to our first moments of democracy, it does a fantastic job.
The film tells the story of the Springboks' winning run in the Rugby World Cup of 1995 and Nelson Mandela’s reclamation of the game for the cause of national unity. Morgan Freeman is cast as Madiba, a role he has coveted since Mandela himself declared that the Shawshank Redemption star should play him in a movie. Freeman captures the gravitas and presence of Mandela with ease, unsurprising for a man who has played both a president (Deep Impact) and God (Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty). South Africans, however, may be a little unconvinced by his accent, which flits between a Tennessee drawl and Madiba’s rolled R’s with confusing regularity.
Matt Damon, sporting a near-flawless 'Kaner accent, plays the Bok captain Francois Pienaar. The buff bod, the psychological platitudes of a rugby captain are all there, and Damon’s reward is a convincing character portrait of the man who claimed the Web Ellis Cup for South Africa. Awards nods may well follow.
Primarily, Invictus works as a historical film. The attention to detail, to the realities of Mzansi as it lived and breathed almost fifteen years ago, is truly commendable. The World Cup action follows the script to a tee: the rain-drenched semi-final in Durban, the terrifying emergence of the All Blacks' Jonah Lomu in the competition. One or two Hollywood embellishments aside, what we get is authentic.
With all this exposition going on, however, someone forgot to tend to the plot. The World Cup and its contingent narratives preclude a satisfying biopic of Mandela, and as a rugby movie, Invictus inevitably falls short in American hands. For all the knowing smiles between his characters and hammy vignettes of "reconciliation" Eastwood has peppered into the film, it lacks tension and the remainder is a documentary with actors.
This isn’t to say that Invictus isn’t moving or inspirational. In fact, South Africans will be hard-pressed not to feel moved by a familiar, but somewhat forgotten story. Winning the Rugby World Cup was an incredible event in the country’s history, a shot of optimism and togetherness to a divided population that needed it then more than we thought we did. Eastwood’s film, if nothing else, is a great reminder of where this nation has been, and more importantly, how hungry it proved to be for its first post-Apartheid moment.