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A Whole New Ball Game 

A sport you don’t understand becomes a metaphor we should all embrace

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Hoorah! Nelson Mandela united South Africans, black and white, and overcame their long-held suspicions and hatred and bigotries in the post-apartheid upheaval by getting them to refocus their hate on Australia and New Zealand. Or at least on their stupid rugby players. Hoorah!

Oh, but I kid, Invictus, because you made me care.

I don’t give a jock strap which national rugby team won the World Cup in 1995. And yet there I was, sobbing like a baby over this movie, wondering where I might learn how to sing the South African national anthem.

Of course, it’s not really about rugby at all, this elegant, deeply affecting film: it’s about people’s capacity to change, which every once in a rare while — as in the surprisingly un-disastrous South African revolution — turns out to actually exist. Based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, a British journalist who befriended Nelson Mandela during his release from prison and ascension to the South African presidency, Invictus is a marvel of a portrait of a moment in time when things could have gone badly wrong but for the quiet, determined leadership that showed everyone another way. Morgan Freeman inhabits Nelson Mandela here as a force of nature, but a placid one, though such a thing sounds impossible. On the day he takes offi ce as president, he pushes his black security team to work with the white special forces offi cers who’d protected the outgoing white president, because he doesn’t want those who represent him to refl ect only one color, one language or one culture.

The mistrust and the anger among these two teams of bodyguards seems like nothing, however, next to the task that consumes this film: Mandela’s quest to get black South Africans to accept the Springboks, a hated emblem of Afrikaner rule, as their own, as a way to let the Afrikaner minority see themselves as still South African too. Mandela buddies himself up with the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, rocking a South African accent and bulked up to rugby size), and starts to work his mellow magic on the white boy, urging him on — without ever saying so — to lead the team to a victory in the World Cup, a year away. It’s a tall order, not just getting all of South Africa to accept the team, but getting the team in shape to win: they’re not very good as Mandela’s taking office...

But the sports-averse needn’t fear: this isn’t a movie about practice sessions and pep talks — unless you want to consider Mandela’s gentle persuading of South Africans to let the past go as a national pep talk, or hell, even one suitable for the whole planet. Freeman is as magnetic as Mandela, and the magic works on us, too: the unforced grace of Anthony Peckham’s script and Clint Eastwood’s direction lets the optimism of Mandela’s perspective — which can sound hopelessly naive, given what we know of human nature — end up feeling like the most obvious thing in the world. Like, why didn’t someone think of this before? (People have, of course, but we so rarely see it in action, and so successfully.)

Which isn’t to say, either, that when Mandela walks out on the rugby pitch to wish the Springboks luck in that fi nal World Cup game, and the mostly white crowd — the same people who believed their country was going to the dogs with Mandela’s release — chants his name, that it doesn’t feel like fantasy. Hopeful, powerful, stirring fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. If this happened once, why can’t it happen some more?

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