| When you attend a movie directed by Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”), you feel like you are in the presence of greatness.
Eastwood, 79, explores the subject of racism in this inspiring true story revolving around the sport of rugby and the Victorian-era titular poem.
The movie opens with the release of Nelson Mandela (Oscar winner Morgan Freeman from “The Dark Knight,” “The Bucket List,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Shawshank Redemption”) from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, after serving a 27-year sentence for crimes committed in leading a movement against apartheid in South Africa.
After blacks were allowed to cast ballots at voting booths, Mandela was elected president in May 1994. The newspaper headlines questioned whether he could run a country on the verge of civil war. He had to balance black aspirations with white fears of retribution. He believed in reconciliation and forgiveness.
South Africa had been chosen to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup. South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, were captained by Francois Pienaar (Oscar winner Matt Damon from “The Good Shepherd,” “The Departed” and “Saving Private Ryan”), a very blond Afrikaner.
The green and gold uniforms, the emblem and the name represented a racially and economically divided nation in the wake of apartheid. The blacks cheered against them and for the opposing teams, because they were a symbol of white oppression. The whites rallied around the Springboks.
Mandela believed in order to build his rainbow nation that the country must unite behind the national team. He risked his political clout by forming an alliance with Pienaar. He made a show of restraint, generosity and compassion.
With his beloved country’s future at stake, Mandela stressed to Pienaar the need to achieve greatness and to exceed all expectations. Soccer was the No. 1 sport in South Africa, and a nationwide public relations campaign began promoting rugby. The Springbok players conducted coaching clinics and taught the local kids how to play rugby. The unifying patriotic slogan became “one team, one country.”
You don’t have to understand rugby to appreciate the skill and athleticism required of a sport often referred to as the “father” of American football. Each team has 15 players on the field (pitch) and they play both offense and defense. Play is continuous. Any player may run, pass, catch or kick the ball. Rugby is a violent contact sport and the players wear no helmets or padding.
This movie is about dreaming big and achieving a triumphant goal. Freeman was born to play this lead role and is superb. He embodies the wisdom, compassion and strength of this gentle, determined man with waves to a crowd, a firm handshake or a big smile on his face. Damon displays a very muscular physique and speaks with a distinctive accent.
Eastwood makes this a family affair. The non-obtrusive musical score playing in the background that effectively accentuates the mood was co-written by Eastwood’s son Kyle. One of the standout songs, “Colorblind,” performed by Overtone, expresses the movie’s stance on racism. Clint’s son Scott plays on the Springboks and wears number 10. He has a knack for kicking the ball and is often shown right behind Damon in several scenes.
The screenplay written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin, contains some great speeches and memorable lines of dialogue. The title is Latin for “invincible.” It also refers to an obscure 1875 poem written by William E. Henley. The most famous lines read by Freeman in voiceover narration are: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
The movie takes a straightforward approach and the 134-minute running time passes quickly. The ending of the movie is sure to bring tears of exultation and joy. This is one of the great sports movies of all time. It is my personal favorite to win the Academy Award for best picture of 2009.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"