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Don't Tell Me It's Only a Game

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 11, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | December 11, 2009 |

My father used to mock me fairly regularly about my fondness for baseball growing up. “What do you see in a bunch of fellas swinging a stick and scratching themselves, son?” And if you were to reduce any sport down to its base level, there’s really not much more to it than a team of overgrown men throwing, catching, and kicking a damn ball, often while beating the hell out of each other.

But, as the saying goes, it’s more than just a game, and sports enthusiasts know that, like almost nothing else, sports can bring a large group of people who do not otherwise have anything in common together. I try to expose my kid to it as much as I can, knowing that — in the coming decades — technologies, ways of life, and perhaps even cultural mores may change, but even if I become an out-of-touch old-timer some day or if he becomes a Republican evangelist, there’ll always be a baseball team or a football team with which we can both relate. That’s the power of sports — the ability to unite emotionally stunted men, otherwise incapable of sharing their feelings with one another.

Likewise, if you reduce Clint Eastwood’s Invictus down to its base elements, it’s little but a sports movie, and bad one, at that — it’s about an underdog South African rugby team that defies the odds throughout the 1995 World Cup championship. As sports movies go, it’s got three strikes against it: 1) it’s about a rugby team, and there’s not a lot of people — at least in America — that understand rugby; 2) I’m not sure that Clint Eastwood understands it that well, either, as the actual play-on-the-field aspects of Invictus aren’t particularly dramatic — it’s a bunch of overgrown men beating each other up over a ball, and the actual gameplay involves mostly muddled skirmishes that somehow results in field goals. The gameplay looks like something out of a shaky-cam Bourne action scene, without any of the adrenaline-fueled glory. And 3) There’s no huge, dramatic trick-play ending with a crowd-pleasing callback.

But in a very real way, that works in Eastwood’s favor here. It takes the focus off the actual game, which we barely understand, and puts it on the broader picture, which is the unifying nature of sport and the way it can bring different sociopolitical classes together. Down South, for instance, there are no bigger fans of college football than Southern beer-drinking rednecks, despite the fact that most of those teams are comprised of an African American majority and the fact that many of those rednecks themselves have never attended a day of college in their lives (see here, for an excellent example of many typical Southern football fans — hilarious yet terryfing). Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seemed to understand that paradox, and he harnessed it to help unify a post-Apartheid South Africa in a time when race-relations were more than fractured. South Africa was broken, and teetering on the edge of racial chaos and economic bankruptcy. And yet, by power of example, Mandela was able to rally a majority black nation behind a predominantly white team, which itself was heavily symbolic of pre-Apartheid South Africa.

Morgan Freeman is downright fantastic as Mandela, and you have to figure that he’s been offered a dozen different movies now where he’s been asked to depict the South African leader. I’m glad he chose this one, as Freeman really seems to capture Mandela’s indomitable spirit, and the way he leads with forgiveness and generosity, rather than competitive will and political calculation. It’s a transcendent performance. Mandela’s story is an amazing one, obviously, and in a way, minimizes our own president’s considerable achievements by comparison, but Invictus isn’t really a movie about Nelson Mandela.

It’s not a movie about the South African rugby team, either, or its captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who — inspired and motivated by Mandela’s example — set his own example for his teammates, who were as skeptical and afraid of a country ruled by black people as the rest of the whites in South Africa were. Damon, too, is quietly excellent, and a fitting stand-in for Eastwood, who often turned in performances that weren’t characterized by strong dialogue or scenery chewing, but by a commanding presence.

But in the end, it’s really about the power of sport over the collective, and the way it can bring so many disparate classes and races together. And like most Eastwood flicks, there’s an undercurrent of sentimentality in Invictus, but Eastwood’s brand of sentiment is so restrained it’s almost elegant. Watching an Eastwood film, you feel a sense of trust, knowing that — with so many years of experience in front of and behind the camera — the director knows how to play our strings without overplaying them. Moreover, whether you like Eastwood’s movies or not, you have to admire the way he makes them: He doesn’t draw you in with technical wizardry and eye-popping special effects (*cough* James Cameron *cough*) or hipster wordplay and pop-cultural allusions (*cough* Quentin Tarantino *cough*). He does it with character, quietly remarkable performances, and compelling stories. Invictus is one of his more compelling ones.

But more than that, despite his inability to really capture the intensity and intricacies of rugby gameplay, Eastwood has nevertheless created one of the best sports movies I’ve ever witnessed. Not because of the intensity of action, but because he’s better captured the spirit of sports, why we watch it, and how it brings us together. Even more remarkably, he’s applied that to an entire nation divided by racial strife — it’s something akin to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch on a much, much grander scale, both culturally and politically.

The emotional high of a team victory is fleeting, and I have no idea what sort of lasting impact the South African’s rugby team’s success in 1995 had over South Africa. But like watching your hometown team win the Super Bowl, I don’t really want to stew on the aftermath. I want to bathe in the glow of that victory, and Invictus was a glowing triumph that I can bathe in for days.

(Check back next week, when TK will publish another review focusing on the South African implications of the movie.)