A Whole New Ball Game: Clint Eastwood tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s political and personal triumph through the unusual prism of a sports saga.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Hoorah! Nelson Mandela united South Africans, black and white, and overcame their long-held suspicions and hatred and bigotries in the post-apartheid upheaval by getting them to refocus their hate on Australia and New Zealand. Or at least on their stupid rugby players. Hoorah!
Oh, but I kid Invictus, because I’m mad. I don’t give a jock’s strap who wins the baseball games in Yankee Stadium a few miles from my house, never mind which national rugby team won the World Cup in 1995 in a country that could not be further away than South Africa. I might potentially find myself caught up in the art and philosophy of baseball, a gentle, pastoral game (as George Carlin once reminded us). But rugby is worse than soccer, worse than American football: It’s just a bunch of beefy guys engaging in ritualized warfare, slamming into one another… and they don’t even wear any protection or padding. They’re freakin’ insane. And so are the people who cheer them on.
Lunatics, I tell you.
And still there I was, sobbing like a baby over this movie, wondering where I might learn how to sing the South African national anthem. Maybe I can buy one of those green Springbok practice jerseys on eBay.
Of course, this elegant, deeply affecting film isn’t really about rugby at all. It’s about people’s capacity to change, which every once in a rare while – as in the surprisingly nondisastrous South African revolution – turns out to exist.
Based on the book Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin, a British journalist who befriended Mandela during his release from prison and ascension to the South African presidency, Invictus is a marvel of a portrait of a moment in time when things could have gone badly wrong but for the quiet, determined leadership that showed everyone another way. Morgan Freeman inhabits Nelson Mandela here as a force of nature, but a placid one, though such a thing sounds impossible. On the day he takes office as president, he pushes his black security team to work with the white special forces officers who’d protected the outgoing white president, because he doesn’t want those who represent him to reflect only one color, one language, or one culture.
The mistrust and anger among these two teams of bodyguards seems like nothing, however, next to the task that consumes this film: Mandela’s quest to get black South Africans to accept the Springboks, a hated emblem of Afrikaner rule (the team has only one black member; the blacks prefer soccer), as their own, as a way to let the Afrikaner minority see themselves as still South African too. Mandela buddies up with the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, rocking a South African accent and bulked up to rugby size), and starts to work his mellow magic on the white boy, urging him on – without ever saying so – to lead the team to the World Cup, a year away. It’s a tall order, not just getting all of South Africa to accept the team, but getting the team in shape: They’re not very good as Mandela’s taking office.
The sports-averse like me needn’t fear. This isn’t a movie about practice sessions and pep talks, unless you want to consider Mandela’s gentle persuading of everyone to let the past go as a national pep talk, or hell, even one suitable for the whole planet. Freeman is as magnetic as Mandela, and the magic works on us, too: the unforced grace of Anthony Peckham’s script and Clint Eastwood’s direction lets the optimism of Mandela’s perspective – which can sound hopelessly naive – end up feeling like the most obvious thing in the world. Reconcile with our oppressors? Why didn’t someone think of this before? (Some people did, but we so rarely see it in action, and so successfully.)
Which isn’t to say that when Mandela walks out on the rugby pitch to wish the Springboks luck in that final World Cup game, and the mostly white crowd – the same people who believed their country was going to the dogs with Mandela’s release – chants his name, that it doesn’t feel like fantasy. Hopeful, powerful, stirring fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. If this happened once, why can’t it happen some more?