“I am the master of my fate: I am captain of my soul.” These words form the heart of “Invictus,” the poem by William Earnest Henley and the title of Clint Eastwood’s new film. The poem comforted and renewed Nelson Mandela as he suffered imprisonment from 1964-1990 in Apartheid South Africa. The fall of Apartheid led not only to his release but his eventual election to the Presidency in 1994.
Invictus the film focuses on Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team. Once hated by blacks in South Africa as a symbol of white oppression, now disdained by whites for their poor performance on the field, the Springboks’ play in the 1995 Rugby World Cup becomes an unlikely opportunity for Mandela to seek unity in racially torn South Africa.
Director Clint Eastwood deals with ground ripe for film making trouble. Nelson Mandela’s near mythic life has defied Hollywood treatment for a reason. Encompassing such a massive personality in a realistic, fair, and human manner appears daunting at best. Also, inspirational sports films form a minefield for movie clichés. Early failure, middle conflict, and last minute redemption seem too predictable.
Despite these difficulties, Invictus works well as a film. Morgan Freeman, as has been said in many reviews, was born to play Nelson Mandela. His piercing yet soft looks, subtle facial expressions, and weary yet strong voice bring a believable humanity to the myth. The film further helps itself by not being a biopic of Mandela’s life. Instead, it wisely focuses on one small part.
The part gives a window to the whole. South Africa post-Apartheid is a place on the brink of racial civil war. The black population demands retribution against their oppressors. Whites, on the contrary, fear such retribution and seem ready to fight to protect themselves.
Mandela stands in the middle, trying desperately to cool the rage of his fellow oppressed while quelling the fears and earning the trust of those who once jailed him. He begins with his own, keeping office workers and bodyguards from the previous administration. When attending a rugby game, he sees the potential of the once divisive team to unite the country. He thus makes it a goal to see the team win the World Cup which was to be hosted in South Africa a mere year later.
Leadership forms a major theme of the film. How does a leader lead? One scene finds Mandela going against the wishes of the people, who voted to eliminate the Springboks team as payback for Apartheid. When his aide says the people want the team disbanded, he tells her the people are wrong. Leadership, it seems, does not mean merely following public opinion; it entails persuasion, moving the people’s passions into line with just principles.
In meeting with Francois, Mandela asks him how a leader can inspire those he leads to greatness, to be better than they think they can be. Leaders appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” encouraging the best in us and more both by their actions and example. Mandela exemplifies this principle when he encourages one of his black bodyguards to forgive the white bodyguards with whom he is assigned to work. Forgiveness, he argues, is a liberation of the soul. Hate itself is a form of slavery, an oppression that continues long after the physical manifestations of subservience are lifted. Mandela’s forgiveness in the face of nearly three decades of imprisonment exemplify what the nation needs. It calls them to do what many think themselves incapable of doing.
Replacing hate with love comes through the prism of athletics. Sports’ capacity to create unity is timeless. In his Ethics, Aristotle speaks of how a citizen can form “goodwill” toward an athlete. This goodwill can unite a team to a nation and a nation to itself. Mandela’s understanding of sports’ power shows that political leadership can do more than address material problems of economies, jobs, and national defense. Thus the scenes of South Africa coming together over their rugby team manage to overcome predictability to create genuine inspiration.
The sports clichés, like the problem of rugby itself (how many of use know the game at all?), are worked out in an effective manner by Eastwood. We do not need to know much about the sport. We need to know what the team comes to represent. Therefore, we look less to the result on the field as to what that result will do to the country. Winning becomes a means, not an end.
Though the hard rugby fan might be disappointed, the Christian should not. Clint Eastwood said in an interview that Mandela was “Christ-like” in his ability to keep the nation together. Mandela’s forgiveness, both preached and exemplified, certainly shows Christ-like traits to be emulated by any believer. His attempts to go against the crowd while trying to bring the crowd to his side are instructive, too. As Christians, we must stand for the truth. But we must do so in the manner best suited to bring others to our understanding of the Gospel.
The poem “Invictus” completes the film’s triumphant, closing sequence. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” Mandela thinks to himself. The quote could be construed as countering a Christian worldview. Only Christ is our captain and master. Yet this quote seems more aimed at human captors and internal despair than at a sovereign God. People may imprison you unjustly; they may kill friends and family. But they cannot conquer your soul. Though a full-fledged articulation of God’s power would have been wonderful, the movie still does much to aid a Christian worldview.