For those of you unaware, the Rugby World Cup 2015 is currently in full swing here in the UK.
As a former player and longtime fan of the sport, it seems to me that this means there’s no better time than the present to put a scene from Invictus, director Clint Eastwood’s film about the 1995 World Cup held in South Africa, under the microscope.
Invictus offers a fictionalised account of the efforts by South African President Nelson Mandela and François Pienaar (captain of South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks) to use victory in the Rugby World Cup to unite the black and white communities in the fiercely divided nation.
Unfortunately, despite this seemingly made-for-film premise, Invictus is ultimately a bit of a let down. Eastwood tells the story in the disarmingly straightforward style that has become his trademark, and Freeman and Damon turn in strong performances as Mandela and Pienaar, but somehow, the movie doesn’t quite work as well as it should.
I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it probably comes down to the fact that the events are so recent and well-known that Eastwood struggles to build any tension over the course of the narrative.
It could also be because the action on the rugby pitch isn’t overly well-executed or exciting (I guess this is how Americans feel watching baseball flicks), despite the use of real-life players as extras.
But mostly, I think it’s because Invictus never truly sells its central conceit that the only chance for racial unity in South Africa rests solely on the success of the Springboks World Cup campaign.
This is despite Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham laying things on so thick that by the end, the biggest challenge to overcoming the aftershocks of apartheid ends up being this guy:
All this isn’t to say Invictus doesn’t still have some powerful moments, and none more so than the when Pienaar visits Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island, where the president spent 18 years of his 27 year prison sentence.
On the face of it, it’s a simple enough bit of business. The Springboks tour the prison, Pienaar inspects Mandela’s cell, and flashbacks to Mandela’s imprisonment are shown whilst the president is heard reciting the poem that gives the film its title.
But there’s a lot going on here that isn’t directly communicated, and which combines to propel the plot and characters forward even as it engages our emotions on a very genuine level.
The emotion begins to build when Pienaar first enters the cell and is confronted with the simple mat and single, wooden chair that comprised Mandela’s living quarters for nearly two decades.
It’s a brutally modest set-up, hammered home all the more because we see it from a downward-looking angle similar to Pienaar’s own perspective.
The score by Kyle (son of Clint) Eastwood and Michael Stevens kicks in here, and whilst elsewhere in the film the music is overdone to an extent that makes “Gonna Fly Now” from the Rocky series seem subtle, here it provides a fittingly sad yet ultimately inspiring theme for the occasion.
When Pienaar next turns and closes the cell door, and spreads his arms so that he can touch the bars at the cell’s entrance and the wall opposite them, he not only demonstrates to the audience just how confined Mandela’s existence was during his imprisonment, but also displays his dawning comprehension of the president’s sacrifice, and the importance of the poem he was given during their first meeting.
From here he gazes out the cell window, at the sun-bleached work yard brilliantly evoked by cinematographer Tom Stern’s oversaturated visuals, and the words of this poem, “Invictus”, come to him in Mandela’s own voice.
As these verses – which comforted Mandela during his darkest hours – flow over Pienaar, he begins to see visions of the president as he appeared all those years ago, unshakeable in the belief that he is the master of his own fate in spite of all his hardship, reaffirming Pienaar’s faith in their plan to unify the nation.
Cue an audience-wide outbreak of goosebumps.
Right off the bat let me say that Damon carries the scene nicely early on by evoking the necessary mood of reverence and a believable sense of introspection. Of course, once Freeman’s voiceover begins, poor Matt is completely forgotten.
Freeman is well-known for his sonorous pipes, but it bares repeating: the guy could rattle off instructions from a manual on gearbox repair and make it sound captivating.
So it’s little wonder that when he is paired with words as stirring as those found in the “Invictus” poem, the result is pure cinematic gold.
Obviously, Peckham can’t take the credit for William Ernest Henley’s original words, but he does deserve a nod for weaving them into the film in this particular way, which ends up being far more emotive than a grandiose scene of Freeman reciting the poem directly to Pienaar (and the audience).
Equally subdued yet effective are the visual effects used to incorporate the Mandela of the past into the present-day setting.
He and his fellow prisoners are portrayed as muted figures, fading in and out reality, evoking the sense that we are viewing ghosts from the past and lending the sequence a haunting quality.
Integrating flashbacks in this way was a nice touch by Peckham and Eastwood, and the final moment in the scene, when Pienaar locks eyes with the spectre of Mandela is particularly clever.
This unconventional meeting of minds – epitomised by the close ups on the sombre faces of both men – further establishes the connection between the two characters, and underscores Pienaar’s new-found understanding of Mandela’s ordeal.
This appreciation of Mandela’s pain on Pienaar’s part is further developed in subsequent scenes where he contemplates the president’s incredible grace in forgiving those responsible for his suffering.
These scenes in turn spur him on in the final act to pursue victory not as an end in itself, but for the greater good of black and white South Africans alike.
So no, Invictus isn’t a particularly great movie, but it does contain undeniable moments of brilliance like the one we’ve just examined, and which remind us of the power of entertainment, whether it be film or sport, to inspire.