How does one approach a film that deals with Nelson Mandela without running the risk of being hagiographic? And how does one avoid the trap of making a noble film? ‘Noble’ is not an adjective that filmmakers like their films to be tagged with. The acknowledgment of the intent belies a lack of engaging narrative and other cinematic merits. Trust Clint Eastwood to set his film free from the burden of history, legend and message then. Invictus (based on John Carlin’s book Playing The Enemy) isn’t the Mandela biopic that many thought it would be. Eastwood and writer Anthony Peckham focus instead on the days after Nelson Mandela assumes the office of the President of South Africa in 1994, leading into the Rugby World Cup the following year to which South Africa acted as host nation.After having spent 27 years in prison, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) knows that his job isn’t finished merely because the apartheid has officially ended or that he has been democratically elected as the President of a nation that had hitherto denied any constitutional, civil and basic human rights to its people of colour. Mandela senses the aspirations of the blacks and the fears of the whites. It is a strange thing how racism can work in reverse; of how the oppressed risks becoming the oppressor once he’s trounced his oppression.
A simple visit to a friendly rugby game helps Mandela realize that his nation is just as fractured as it was before his release- the white Afrikaners cheer for the national rugby team while the blacks cheer for the opponent. To the blacks, the national rugby team, called the Springboks and, symbolized by their gold and green uniforms (also the colours of the apartheid flag), represent a remnant of the days of white supremacy. Mandela resolves that for his nation to emerge as ‘one country’, they must support and play as ‘one team’. To this end, he meets François Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springboks. The no-nonsense Pienaar finds himself humbled upon meeting Mandela, and describes him as “unlike any man I’ve met before.”
The two men set forth thus on achieving a near miracle. Mandela endangers his own following when he backs the all-white Springboks and refuses to terminate their symbolic uniforms. Rather than ‘erase’ history, he chooses to ‘rewrite’ it. The colours of apartheid, he hopes emerge as the colours of a rainbow nation. Pienaar meanwhile sets out to egging on his team to aim to reach the finals of the World Cup, and once there to hopefully win it as well. What these two achieve is the sort of stuff that we would have found contrived were it the machinations of a fictitious script. What Freeman and Damon achieve as actors is equally miraculous. Both of them master the tricky accent and get into the skin of their characters. Freeman especially, with his inflections and speech modulation, plays Mandela so well; it is hard to imagine Mandela play a better version of himself!Revenge and vengeance have been the underlying themes of Eastwood’s impressive directorial oeuvre. But what has made Eastwood the master director that he is is the fact that he hasn’t merely touched upon retribution in his films; he’s questioned it, pondered over it and fought with it… and himself. In Invictus, compassion is the weapon of choice.