I’m feeling a little inspired watching Clint Eastwood’s Invictus at the moment. Not soooo inspired that I can’t take my eyes off the film — especially during its by-the-books rugby battle scenes (and I’m usually a sucker for a good sports narrative in film). Moreso, I was so moved early on in the film by Nelson Mandela’s political compassion that, in its light, what would otherwise be perfectly engaging sports scenes are feeling a little underwhelming. The real sport story of Invictus isn’t found on the field but between the newly-freed and elected Mandela and his hungry-for-change supporters, from whom he found himself alienated when he saw a nation-building opportunity in the shape of supporting the national rugby team. Rather than use his new mandate to dismantle what was seen by black South Africans as a symbol of antiquated and still painful Apartheid-era white hegemony, he chose instead to risk his hard won political capital to support the white Afrikaner-cherished tradition. In a very moving scene, Mandela (played deftly by the always great Morgan Freeman) gives the following speech to his party, who’d gathered to vote on shutting down the rugby program.
"On Robben Island in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years I studied them. I learned their language. Read their books. Their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against them. And we did prevail, did we not? All of us here, we prevailed. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in a democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with the compassion, with restraint and generosity. I know all of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us. Even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold."
While it didn’t make much green at the box office (making a disappointing $37.5 million in theaters), that’s surely the stuff of biopic gold (you can practically hear the producers clinking their champagne glasses in the background during the pregnant pause after that speech is delivered) and the stuff Eastwood was born to deliver in a blaze of John Huston-esque glory. Is it safe? You bet. Has it been done before? You bet. Does it have guts? Well, the story does, but not so sure about the storytelling. Does it matter? No way. Sometimes you just feel like a Snickers, and this shit is inspiring. At the very least I’m feeling compelled to do some reading on Mandela to go beyond my anecdotal understanding of who he was as a man.