“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others.” – Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman
Invictus is based on the true story of how Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s improbable victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup united the country. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood. He is the perfect director for this film. Rather than try to overdramatize, sensationalize, and focus too much on the actual sporting event, Eastwood does an excellent job developing the key characters in the story [President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and captain of the national Rugby team Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon)], and how their partnership during the 1995 World Cup. South Africa was the host nation of the World Cup but its team was an underdog and far from being one of the favorite teams to win the tournament. While nations generally rally behind their sports teams, the South African national rugby team (known as the Springboks) was actually a source of division before the 1995 World Cup. For the black South Africans, the Springboks represented apartheid. Consequently, the blacks would root for any team that played against the Springboks. It is magnificent how Mandela was able to embrace something that was a source of division and turned it into something that united people. Accordingly, this story is an example of how real life is more amazing than any work of fiction Hollywood can think up. Morgan Freeman is the star of the movie as Nelson Mandela. It is a role that he was born to play and his performance is flawless. He captures the charisma, grace, character, and courage to lead that Mandela embodies. Matt Damon is a solid supporting actor as Francois Piennar. He wants to be a great leader but does not know how. Of course, Mandela understands the need for exceptional leadership to drive a rugby team and nation to greatness. Piennar is inspired by Mandela and is taken under the wing of the legendary president to become a great leader himself. Invictus is not an overly dramatic sports movie so it is not for you if that is what you want to see. However, I highly recommend the movie if you enjoy watching history, great story telling, and incredible acting.
In 1990, apartheid laws were repealed in South Africa. In the same year, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. However, the repeal of laws and release of one man does not immediately unify two very different groups, that distrust each other, into one nation. The opening scene of Invictus occurs during the news of Mandela’s release from prison. During the scene, a white high school coach tells his student “It’s the terrorist Mandela, they let him out. Remember this day boys, this is the day our country went to the dogs.” The quote reflects the mood of the nation at the time and the upcoming challenges it would face. The film does an excellent job pointing out the fears of the nation and the unrest that could have lead to civil war. A significant turning point in the history of South Africa is the election of Mandela as its President in 1994, the first year the black majority could vote after the end of apartheid. Of course, Mandela is a hero to black South Africans and affectionately known to them by his clan name, “Madiba”. If Mandela was an ordinary man, he could have sought revenge against the white South Africans like a significant number of his constituents wanted. Instead, he was the better man and opted for forgiveness and reconciliation with the whites. He had every reason to be hateful. He was imprisoned for 27 years and in terrible conditions. I do not know if I could forgive being wrongfully imprisoned for 27 seconds. However, I am not Nelson Mandela. It shows how special of a person Mandela is. He led by example. No one had more reason to be spiteful and use his power to punish the people he thought oppressed or was against him. If he can forgive, everyone else in the country can too. While it is necessary to use force at times, I respect great men like Mandela or Gandhi who can change the world with their compassion and grace instead of with armies. Mandela started his presidency as a hero to the black South Africans, he left office as a hero to all South Africans.
Invictus is a great movie because it portrays Nelson Mandela’s brilliance in utilizing the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help unite South Africa. Of course, the World Cup is hosted by South Africa in 1995. As a result, he knows it is a great opportunity to show the world that South Africa is united and ready to move forward as one nation. However, it is definitely a monumental task. First, the South Africans are underdogs in the tournament. As noted by one of Mandela’s advisors in the movie, “According to the experts, we’ll reach the Quarter Finals, and no further.” Nevertheless, Mandela responds optimistically as only he can and responds with a smile “According to the experts, you and I should still be in jail.” Moreover, the tournament featured a juggernaut New Zealand team that annihilated their opponents en route to the Finals. In pool play, New Zealand beat Ireland 43-19, Wales 34-9, and Japan by an absurd score of 145-17. In the quarterfinals, they beat Scotland 48-30. In the semi-finals, they beat England 45-29. They featured superstar Jonah Lomu, who was basically the Lebron James of rugby. He dominated the World Cup scoring 7 times in 3 matches, including 4 in the semi-finals against England. Accordingly, the South Africans knew that even if they upset their way to the Finals, an unbeatable opponent and an unstoppable player awaited them in the Finals. Even before the South Africans can worry about the sporting event itself, they need to overcome the anger that the Springboks incite. When Mandela visits his first Springboks match, the white crowd boos him as they did not vote for him while the blacks in the crowd root for England. For the black South Africans, they hate the Springboks as the team is another symbol of apartheid. Accordingly, they vote unanimously to disband the team now that they have taken power and have control of the South African Sports Committee.
As I noted above, Morgan Freeman is the perfect Nelson Mandela and there is no one that could have portrayed the legend any better. The scene in the movie that best defines Mandela as an extraordinary man and leader, while showcasing Freeman’s excellent performance, is Mandela’s response to the vote to dissolve the Springboks. When Mandela hears the news, he immediately knows it is a mistake as it will increase tensions between the blacks and the whites. As such, it is completely against the best interest of his nation. Nevertheless, one of his aides begs him not to get involved over something as trivial as rugby: “You’re risking your political capital, you’re risking your future as our leader.” Mandela’s responds with one of the best lines in the movie “The day I am afraid to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead.” These words are exactly why Mandela is a special leader. He did what he felt was right and for the betterment of his country. It takes an incredible person to have the courage to lead and not care about the political consequences. In one of my favorite moments in the movie, he delivers a compelling argument to his constituents: “Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in 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 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. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.” In a revote, he narrowly gets 7 more votes in favor of restoring the Springboks. The scene shows Mandela’s foresight in realizing that the country cannot move forward without its white minority. He knows they still control the most important parts of South Africa such as the military and the economy. Afterwards, he explains to his aide why it is so important to embrace the white South Africans. She asks whether it was all a political calculation. However, he answers it is a “human calculation”. If you treat people with the respect they deserve, they will buy into your message. Human beings generally respond more favorably to positive messages and kindness rather than malicious actions that try to invoke fear. Accordingly, this scene shows Mandela’s ability to inspire people through his grace and good intentions.
There are three other scenes at the beginning of the movie that portray key aspects of Mandela that make him an exceptional man and leader. When he first wins the election, he picks up a newspaper that has the headline “He may win an election, but can he run a country”. Instead of taking exception to it, he embraces reality and the challenge by noting “It’s a legitimate question”. His reaction shows his humility. It also highlights his ability to turn a negative statement to positive motivation. The next scene is his first day in office. In normal regime changes, the winner of the election removes most if not all of the predecessor’s staff and replaces them with his own people. However, Mandela knows that there are qualified and good people in the previous regime. As South Africa faces a lot of challenges and needs all the best people he can get to run the government, he makes the morale and wise decision to judge people by their merits. It is no time to play politics and be racist or prejudiced. In his address to all the staff, he makes an inspiring speech telling them that he wants them, he needs them, and they would be doing a great service to their country by staying to do their jobs. All Mandela asks of them is to be committed and “Do your work to the best of your abilities and with good heart. I will promise to do the same. If we can manage that, our country will be a shining light in the world”. Similarly, the third scene is his decision to assign members of the Special Branch to be part of his security team. During apartheid, the Special Branch was the feared police that attacked and killed opponents of apartheid. Naturally, Mandela’s head of security, Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge)is strongly opposed and angry about idea. He does not trust members of the Special Branch and hates them. When Jason confronts Mandela about it, Mandela points out that Jason asked for more men and the members of Special Branch are the most qualified candidates. More importantly, he asks Jason to forgive as “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” It is a very powerful message coming from Mandela. He was unjustly imprisoned for 27 years. If he is able to forgive and move forward, everyone else can too. It is the reason he is the perfect leader for South Africa in this critical moment in its history.
The film also does an excellent job portraying the partnership between Mandela and Francois Pienaar. Matt Damon is a solid supporting actor as Francois. He is the captain of the Springboks. The team is mediocre and it eats at him. He wants and tries to be a great leader that inspires his teammates to greatness but he does not know how. Mandela sees a golden opportunity to turn the Springboks, a source of divisiveness, into something that unites the country. As Mandela understands the importance of great leadership in achieving that goal, he takes an interest in Francois and invites him to tea. During the meeting, they discuss leadership and inspiration. Mandela asks Francois how he inspires his team. Francois answers that he believes in leading by example. Of course, Mandela absolutely agrees. Moreover, Mandela mentors Francois by explaining the importance of inspiring yourself before you can move others: “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others.” In prison, he found inspiration from the words a Victorian poem [Invictus] that motivated him to endure the most difficult days. In the 1992 Olympics, Mandela was greeted with a song by the crowd of people from all over the planet: Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika or God Bless Africa. Although South Africa’s future looked bleak at that time, the song inspired him to return home, do better, and exceed his own expectations. Accordingly, he tells Francois that South Africa needs inspiration: “In order to build our nation, we must all exceed our expectations.” Although Mandela does not explicitly say it, Francois understands that Mandela wants him to lead by example and inspire his team to exceed expectations by winning the World Cup. Similarly, the Springboks will lead by example and inspire South Africa to be great.
While Mandela’s support of the Springboks is critical, he also knows it is important for the team to embrace the country before all of South Africa rallies behind it. While the team is resistant, Francois leads and encourages them to fully commit to initiatives that engage the community such as teaching young black South Africans how to play rugby and learning the words to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Mandela also shows a great personal touch to embrace and motivate each player on the Springboks. For example, he makes the effort to learn each player’s name so he can greet him personally and tell him the entire country is behind him. Slowly but surely, the Springboks unite and significantly improve as a team that moves toward achieving greatness with an improbable run in the World Cup. Before the start of the quarterfinals, Francois takes his team on a special early morning run. He surprises his teammates with a boat trip with their girlfriends and wives. Naturally, the trip is to the prison where Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. As Francois stands in Mandela’s cell, he visualizes how difficult it must have been for Mandela to live in a small cell and endure years of hard labor in the prison yard. Despite 3 decades in prison, Mandela had an undying determination and will that persevered. As Francois runs through these thoughts as he stands in the prison, he truly understands how special Mandela is. It is a moving trip for the entire team but it is especially inspiring for Francois. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
The team would go on to beat Western Samoa then France to advance to the Finals to face the mighty New Zealand team with a great and feared player in Jonah Lomu. South Africa was a 2 to 1 underdog going into the match. I like the finale of the movie as it focuses on South Africa uniting as a nation as much as the dramatic Finals that goes into extra time before being decided. Before the match, there is an excellent scene when Mandela sees his security team bonding by playing rugby together. He proudly turns to his aide, who questioned whether he should risk his political capital earlier in the film on the Springboks, and asks “Do you still think I’m wasting my time on the rugby?” It is a powerful moment as the security team distrusted each other when they first met. It is a great analogy for how South Africa transformed and united since the start of the movie. Moreover, Director Clint Eastwood does an excellent job portraying the Finals. Instead of trying to sensationalize it with too many over the top speeches or exhilarating plays that never happen as is the case with a lot of sports movies, he focuses on the South African home crowd. As the game is tied and winds down, the crowd unites under a harmonic chant to inspire the Springboks to victory similar to how the team has inspired the country. Of course, the chant is much more than trying to rally a rugby team to win the World Cup. It is symbolic of the moment South Africa declared to the world they were finally one nation united after decades of apartheid. After South Africa wins, they stay on the field for the presentation of the championship trophy. Francois is asked by a reporter to acknowledge the amazing support of the 63,000 South Africans in the crowd. However, Francois answers “We didn’t have the support of 63,000 South Africans. We had had the support of 43 million South Africans.” It is a brilliant line that embodies the miracle of how a divisive issue like the Springboks was able to unite a country. The movie also recreates one of the most famous and historic moments in sports when Nelson Mandela steps on the field, wearing a Springboks jersey and cap, to present Francois the trophy. In the film, Mandela embraces Francois and says “I would like to thank you for you have done for our country.” Francois instinctively responds, “No Mr. President. Thank you for what you have done for our country”.
As Mandela leaves the stadium, his car is stuck in the traffic caused by the celebration. He tells his security that he is in no hurry at all as he soaks in the moment, smiles, and ponders everything he was able to accomplish. As he collects his thoughts, he ends the movie by reciting some of the powerful words in the poem Invictus in his mind:
“I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”