As is public knowledge, Nelson Mandela was released from the Robben Island prison after 27 yrs of imprisonment in 1990 and went on to win the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa and become the first black president of the country. The story of “Invictus” takes off almost immediately when Mandela’s first priority is to ‘balance black aspirations with white fears’ because although apartheid had officially been banned from South African lives, it still stayed on in the minds of almost everybody in the country. The blacks were unwilling to forgive and forget the atrocities committed upon them and their forefathers by the settlers, while the whites were warily waiting for the black backlash now that they had a black president and blacks with equal rights.
While figuring out an effective way of dealing with the white-black hostilities Mandela hits upon the idea of using the Springboks, the country’s rugby team to bring together all the South African people to support a common cause, a small first step which he was sure would help build bridges between the various communities in the country. While this in itself was not such a bad idea, the fact that the Springboks themselves were going through a ‘crisis’ of sorts in terms of trying to break a losing streak complicated matters further.
As a first step, Mandela convinces the Rugby Board to retain the name and the colors of the Springboks (which had long been regarded as one of the most visible symbols of the apartheid era), and given that South Africa was set to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, he invites the captain Francois Pienaar for a cup of tea. Although he doesn’t quite put it in as many words, he manages to get his ideas across to Francois regarding the fact that the Springboks, as a sports team had the ability to bring the entire country together in ways that probably couldn’t be done otherwise.
What follows is how Francois manages to convince his team-mates of this message, bring in a winning attitude within the team, galvanize black support for a team which they loved to hate, and go on to actually win the 1995 Rugby World Cup against all odds.
Now, while at the heart of it, Invictus for most part remains a sports-movie in that it follows the path of a team in dire straits and its ultimate turnaround to winning ways, the serious under-currents of post-apartheid South Africa are just too visible and strong to be ignored in this movie. The way Clint Eastwood, the director (oh, that wonderful genius, wonder when he’ll stop making good movies!!!) handles and balances both these parallel themes throughout the movie makes you forget whether this was a sports movie or one with a seriously loaded message. Net result, Invictus ends up being a very good movie with a strong message, a feel-good sports movie, in addition to the fact that it is almost completely based on true events.
The casting with Morgan Freeman probably playing the role of his life as Nelson Mandela, Matt Damon wonderfully portraying the introverted Francois Pienaar, and the entire supporting cast primarily playing characters from Mandela’s Presidential staff is picture perfect. Eastwood probably couldn’t have chosen better actors for each of their roles. And the side-script where the black Presidential Secret Service men ultimately bond with their white counterparts makes for a wonderful story by itself. All in all, in my opinion, this movie is a serious contender for at least one if not more Academy Awards this season.