I know a lot about sports. I know a lot about a lot of different sports. I know the most about basketball, followed by football, followed by some combination of baseball, tennis, soccer, and hockey, depending on the situation. I know a bit about ping pong and billiards, if you consider those to be sports. I know more than I’d like to admit about gymnastics thanks to the tremendous crush I had on Dominique Moceanu as a kid. I even know a thing or two about cricket due to a paper I had to write in college. I do not, however, know a lot about rugby. I vaguely understand the concepts (one of which appears to be, “Don’t die”) and the scoring is similar to football. But prior to Saturday, if you asked this recreation director to set up an impromptu game of rugby, the outcome would have likely been quite disappointing. (Unless, of course, you yourself didn’t know a lot about rugby in which case it might turn into quite a fun game, who knows.) I know a bit more about it now.
“Invictus” is the true-life tale of the South African Springboks rugby team that won the sport’s World Cup in 1995. Well, sort of. Ostensibly I think it’s about the rugby team. And at points the rugby action takes to the forefront of the film. But really “Invictus” is about Nelson Mandela’s early presidential years and his use of the rugby team to unite a bitterly fractured nation, told in three acts. Act One centers around Mandela (played, of course, by Morgan Freeman) and his attempts to figure out how to do the job that has been set before him. The relationship that Mandela develops with Boks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) takes center stage for Act Two as the two serve as a bridge between their two cultures. And the sport of rugby is given its glorious stage during Act Three, as the underdog group of hardheads battles its way to a tremendously significant title. (I don’t feel bad, by the way, about spoiling the end of this movie. This event happened 15 years ago. I also don’t feel bad about telling you that Bruce Willis was dead for the entirety of “The Sixth Sense.” It’s been out there for a while now.)
The performances here are, as expected, quite strong. Freeman is one of the five or ten best actors we have going today and his pedigree shines through yet again. This was clearly a very personal role for Freeman, who initially got the ball rolling on the project and served as producer. He wraps himself into Mandela, as it were, capturing the man’s spirit and mannerisms in what is perhaps his best performance since “The Shawshank Redemption.” Likewise, Damon (probably my favorite actor these days), provides great support to Freeman’s undeniable leading man. Sure, Damon isn’t asked to do as much as he has been in the past, but he more than holds his own. I expect both to receive Oscar nominations in the upcoming weeks. In addition, director Clint Eastwood is masterful behind the camera. Look, I’m not a huge fan of Eastwood’s recent work. “Million Dollar Baby” is one of the most overrated films of the past decade and “Gran Torino” is really not good at all. But there’s no question that the guy knows what he’s doing, especially the way in which he makes the most out of very simple shots.
Perhaps the best part of this movie is the shrewd way in which the two stories (one of Mandela’s presidency, the other of the rugby team) are blended together. I don’t know who made this decision, whether it was Freeman, Eastwood, the studio, or some combination of the three, but it was a stroke of genius. Both of these stories are important and need to be told, but I’m not sure either could command an audience if told separately. Mandela has led an amazing life but his persona doesn’t exactly lend itself to fantastic storytelling. Act One of “Invictus” is great but borders on the boring. If the entire film had continued as it started, the audience would have been lost. At the same time, while the Springboks' improbable victory is a great story, I’m not sure you can package a rugby movie to the American movie-goer. By combining the two and focusing the story on how the two parts intertwine, Eastwood is able to shed some light on two stories that need to be told without risking the alienation of the crowds. (Though I guess box office figures would suggest no one wanted to see the film, anyway.)
I do not recommend “Invictus” if you’re looking for a sports movie. The rugby action has its moment and I personally picked up a bit of knowledge about the sport. But it’s far from being the focus of the film. I really don’t even consider this to be a sports movie. It isn’t like the sporting part of the movie serves only as a break from the rest of the action like, say, the very uncomfortable volleyball scene in “Top Gun.” It’s just not the intention of the film to be to rugby what “Hoosiers” is to basketball or what “Miracle” is to hockey. But the blend of these two huge historical stories is superb and the final product is excellent. A.
I typed “rubgy” instead of “rugby” about a billion times,