Monday, July 26, 2010

Payback

When Nelson Mandela was freed in 1991 from almost three decades of incarceration on Robben Island in South Africa, he was either a terrorist or a hero, depending on whom you asked.  While much of  the world saw his release and subsequent election as President as a grand victory over apartheid, white South Africans waited for what they believed was the inevitable payback for the years of keeping their collective boot on the black population's neck. 

While the recent World Cup highlighted how far the country has come but also the distance it still must travel to be a prosperous and safe democracy, the early days of the Mandela age had the potential, if mishandled, to send it into a downward spiral to civil war.  In the film Invictus, which I had the pleasure of finally watching over the weekend, the audience is given insight into one of the most remarkable political characters of our time.  In the opinion of director Clint Eastwood, it is largely because of Mandela's resolve and wisdom--not to mention his canny instincts as a politician--that South Africa did not completely disintegrate.  

Eastwood has made a career out of movies about retribution, and in this variation on that theme, he gives the audience the gift of a version much evolved from Dirty Harry and Unforgiven.  Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Mandela shows the leader's remarkable charisma: it's clear he makes everyone he meets feel like the most special person in the world.  This would be amazing enough, given his long prison term, but then we get glimpses of his humor, not to mention his charm with the ladies. It's impossible not to be enthralled with Freeman's version of Mandiba, as Mandela is known to his intimates. He has endured so much, yet conducts himself with remarkable grace, even when he finds himself estranged from his wife and children after so many years away and with the burden of a nation upon his shoulders. 

Mandela has determined that typical vengence--in the particular moment of the film, taking away the colors and symbol of the country's essentially white rugby team, thereby teaching the former ruling class a lesson in humility--would be shortsighted and in no way helpful. Yet the hokey bits, where they are, are saved for the rugby field. To be sure, Mandela is portrayed as a man of compassion, but what makes the role real is his calculated approach: keeping what matters most and getting the whole nation behind it will give him the room to make real change.  So in the World Cup of rugby, he does all he can to give his people, all of his people, a reason to feel proud.  Mandela, unlike Harry Callahan, knows the rules apply to him as much as to anyone else. He changes the game not by flouting them, but by playing it well and with class, despite intense criticism by both supporters and detractors. 

The film's name--invictus is Latin for "unconquered"--comes from a Victorian poem Mandela asserts gave him strength at his darkest moments.  He shares it with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team (played by Matt Damon) just prior to the start of the tournament.  The last line gives weight and beauty to the entire plot. 

I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.  --William Ernest Henley

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