Rugby has been called a gentleman’s sport but there is nothing civil about this grueling game. Competitors, playing without protective gear, expect pain and are amply rewarded with it. Locked in the tight confines of a scrum, they grind and grapple with their opponents. Things happen in that huddle that no mom wants to hear about—believe me I know.
But for South Africa in the 1990s, rugby is more than just a game. It becomes a way for the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) to unite a country ravaged by economic woes, escalating crime and the deep-set effects of Apartheid.
After serving 27 years in prison for his attempts to end legal racial segregation, Mandela’s election as President of South Africa sparks new trouble in the state as Black aspirations and White fears clash. Yet during these perilous, early days in office, Mandela chooses to take an overt interest in the nation’s rugby team, the Sprinkboks. He does so despite the advice of his chief of staff, Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh) and other members of the cabinet.
Believing in the power of sport to unite the people, Mandela invites the team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to his office. Rather than discussing the intricacies of a ruck or a try, Mandela engages Pienaar in a conversation about leadership and discloses to the captain his hopes for a win at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a shared cup of tea and a handshake to ensure the squad’s success. In fact, even some of the players themselves are diffident about their chances for victory. They are even less enthused about their role in bringing together a divided population, especially when they are sent out to sponsor rugby camps in the impoverished Black neighborhoods.
However Mandela has a vision for a rainbow nation, one that even extends to include his own security guards (Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones) who have to overcome past prejudices in order to work together. Just as the President expects the best efforts from his own inner circle, he also anticipates the same from the Sprinkboks, even when they face the New Zealand All Blacks, unstoppable opponents who begin every match with a menacing rendition of the Haka, a traditional Maori war dance.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin, this movie brings to the screen a pivotal point in history—giving a small glimpse into the difficulties of the South African people and the dreams of their first Black president. The script, adapted by South African screenwriter Anthony Peckham, contains scenes of intense sports action, short depictions of riots (including a corpse in the street) and brief strong language. While the film won’t teach anyone the rules of rugby or likely inspire moms to send their children out to play it, Invictus does showcase the power of sport and Mandela’s ability to employ the game for the good of his countrymen.