Eastwood does Mandela
It is not hard to imagine a three-hour-plus biopic covering the trials and triumphs of Nelson Mandela. A life as epic as Mandela’s naturally lends itself to a lofty cinematic portrayal along the lines of a Gandhi or an Elizabeth. But to tell the complete story of a person on film entails inevitable risk. While such films are considered prime Oscar bait, they tend to feel overlong, clichéd, and predictable. With Invictus, director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham have wisely chosen to focus on one fascinating and important episode in Mandela’s life—the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa that helped the severely divided nation along the path to reconciliation and unity. This is a useful frame within which to explore Mandela’s post-apartheid efforts to heal his nation, and it provides the film with human drama and the excitement of competition.
The Human Factor
The single most powerful accomplishment of the film is that, unlike biopics that idolize their subjects, Invictus thoroughly humanizes Mandela. Following some brief historical context (the end of apartheid and the inauguration of Mandela), the first image we see is of the newly elected president waking up in the morning. He pulls himself up, makes his bed, and goes out for a walk. Seeing Mandela in such a personal light—we watch him tell jokes, get bored in meetings, and of course, feel the excitement of sport—reminds the audience that even the most impressive and courageous figure is, after all, human like us.
Indeed, the film focuses as much on Mandela’s political acumen as on his legendary spiritual generosity. Mandela uses the performance of South Africa’s Springbok rugby team, formerly a symbol of white oppression, as a tool to unite the bitterly divided black and white populations. Rather than attempt to deify Mandela, Eastwood emphasizes his political genius in using a sporting team to capture the hearts and minds of his people.
But political shrewdness never gives way to cynicism. At one point, Mandela’s skeptical aide, confused by her boss’s preoccupation with rugby, asks the president if his newfound obsession with the game is merely a political calculation. “It is a human calculation,” Mandela responds. (The film’s working title was actually The Human Factor.) It is clear that Mandela does engage in political maneuverings to lift the spirits of the nation. However, he does not rely on his own authority or his rhetorical prowess to achieve this. Instead, he recognizes the ability of human drama to inspire people to reform and reconcile. He merges politics and sports in order to make his country cheer as one.
Yet despite the inherent inspiration of the story, Invictus suffers from a curious sense of detachment and slowness. While its pacing is more often meditative than plodding, the film nevertheless lacks the fire and wit of other recent ventures like The Queen and Milk, both of which told the true stories of political leaders but with greater liveliness and humor. Fortunately, though, the simple joy of sport provides an effective antidote to the occasionally lagging pace. It is difficult to think of a genre of film that better captures the thrill of human experience than the sports movie. From the uplifting underdog tale of Rudy to Eastwood’s own Million Dollar Baby, the sports genre has given filmmakers the ability to create enduring drama both on and off the playing field. The inherent suspense of a sporting match—even one in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion—is a joy to watch, as every hit, score, and cheer is magnified on the big screen. Invictus is at its best not only when it captures the humanity of Mandela, but also during the film’s climactic rugby match. In Invictus, the thrill of competition is infectious.
Invictus ends with images of celebration and reconciliation. The audience is left with the impression that through his genius (and with a little help from the Springboks), Mandela managed to repair the rift that had nearly torn South Africa apart. The truth of the matter, unfortunately, is not so simple. A December article by Barry Bearak in the New York Times revealed that nearly half of South Africa feels that race relations have not improved since the end of apartheid. On the national Day of Reconciliation, many Afrikaners still celebrate the Day of the Vow, which commemorates their bloody victory over the Zulus in 1838. That’s a far cry from the happily-ever-after ending of popular legend and Eastwood’s portrayal. Bearak even singled out Eastwood’s film for contributing to the misconception, writing, “Viewers of the new American movie Invictus might be tempted to conclude that such racial harmony prevailed in the aftermath of a long-shot upset in a rugby game.”
However, Eastwood and Peckham should not be condemned for producing a film that attempts to captivate rather than fully inform. Special effects and camera trickery are not the only tools of cinematic illusion; motion pictures also have the power to create their own historical memories. Sometimes the results are dangerous; D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a frighteningly bigoted conception of post-Civil War America, comes to mind. Other works, such as Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-mongering JFK, provoke ongoing controversy. With Invictus, however, the purpose is not to rewrite history, but to examine a single moment. As with all movies, the filmmakers sought to capture the audience’s imagination. On that front, they succeeded and produced a work that celebrates the possibilities of reconciliation and renewal. Critics may endlessly debate the social responsibility of filmmakers to educate audiences as well as entertain them. But for better or worse, Invictus celebrates a moment in the past, ephemeral perhaps, but also inspiring.
Near the end of the film, Mandela appears on a television sports program and he links the challenges of governing to challenges on the field. Rugby is a tough sport, he says, much like politics. The metaphor may be anticipated, but it is also powerful, and it stays with you. Politics, like sports, is aggressive, unpredictable, and rife with disappointment. But with the right players, and at the right moments, both have the power to capture the best of the human spirit. Invictus shows that films can do the same. ♦
Jonathan Hawley ‘10 is a Senior Writer.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures