The letter read, “You’re on your own.” It was typewritten on blank white paper and undated. The missive was from my magazine editor. She explained that if something happened to me the magazine was not obliged to do anything about it. This is April 1986, and I am flying to South Africa in three days’ time.
South Africa had announced a state of emergency the previous year and stopped issuing visas to foreign journalists. So, I’m going on a tourist visa, which makes me illegal.
Afrikaners have been running South Africa since 1948. More than 3.5 million blacks were forced from their homes into what became ten artificial (and many times noncontiguous) reservations called “homelands.” These entities amounted to 13 percent of the nation’s land area. Whites, consisting of 9 percent of the population, kept 87 percent of the land for themselves and solved their “democracy” problem to boot. Blacks were stripped of their citizenship, assigned to a “homeland,” and then, magically, whites became the majority race in South Africa. The government could ban you, imprison you indefinitely without charges, make it illegal to tell anyone the name of any person arrested or detained, censor newspapers, television, wiretap telephones, flat out murder your ass, and did. Here’s the short version: South Africa was where Germany won WWII.
I traveled all around the country, stayed in black townships, Indian townships, colored townships, marched in funeral possessions, attended rallies, and ran alongside township residents through thick clouds of tear gas. I ate with activists, drank with them, talked politics with them, slept in their houses, and, on one occasion, transported banned articles for them.
Several people I met had done time at Robben Island and knew Nelson Mandela. To a man, they spoke his name with the reverence of a young seminarian saying the name of his lord.
So, I came to Invictus rooting for the movie. It features the man I admire above all others, directed by Clint Eastwood (I’ll see any movie he directs), starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Freeman usually doesn’t act much: he’s Morgan Freeman in whatever movie he’s in, and that’s fine with me.
To make it more interesting, Freeman has been conferring with Mandela since the mid-’90s about making a movie. It was Mandela who wanted Freeman to portray him. And, as bonus, the film is about the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship and how Mandela used that contest to unite his country. Rugby is a great game and deserves a wider audience. I liked everything about the movie going in.
Let me hurry to say that I enjoyed the show. In fact, it’s testimony to Eastwood’s skill that after the first 20 minutes you’re caught up in a sports movie and 1995 South Africa subsides into the background. Which is also the problem: it is a sports movie and takes every step every other sports movie has taken for the past hundred years.
Freeman acted this time. He nailed Mandela’s walk, stance, and accent. Brilliant performance, only missing the steel of Mandela. There is a quality to the real man, a place right below the surface of his skin that contains the hardest steel man can make. Push a little and you’ll see it.
Matt Damon as captain of the rugby team is wonderful. He has the accent, walk, look of a white South African. He has no memorable speeches, no moments that audiences will take home and remember, but it’s a flawless performance. No one else in the film has much screen time. There is interplay between the black security personnel fresh from the ANC and white security personnel fresh from enforcing Apartheid. That could have been interesting, but again, the script relies on formula — how recent enemies find humanity in each other. It’s been done one million times, and this makes one million and one.
There is something else missing in Freeman’s Mandela. You leave the theater not knowing the man any better than when you walked in. A lot of this has to do with the immense problem of filming great historic figures. When was the last time you saw George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or FDR played with depth? My guess is never. Writers, directors, producers are careful not to offend or disturb popularly held myths. Therefore, Washington/Lincoln/FDR come out bland, and, despite Freeman’s stellar effort, that’s what happens here. Add to that the hack sports-story line and an ending that not only fails to rise to the occasion, but actually pushes the movie in the other direction, and you don’t have a great movie.
You have a pretty good movie which is plenty good enough. But, it could have been so much more.