In 2009 I saw what I consider to be the best sports-related film made in the last 20 years, and definitely one of the two best sports films since Rocky, the greatest sports film of all time.
Before seeing Invictus, I had always regarded the 1981 film Chariots Of Fire, a film about two runners, as the only sports-related film that ever really dared to dig into issues of race or diversity. Chariots of Fire told the story of a Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. Way ahead of its time, Chariots went onto win an Oscar for Best Picture, one of the few foreign films to do so. Invictus got decent reviews but was lauded quietly by professional film critics and sports nuts with a thirst for history.
Yet, Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, took the torch a mile further. This film tells the story of Nelson Mandela's first term as South Africa's president in the days after his historic election in 1994. Like much of the nation, the Springboks, South Africa's well-traveled national rugby team, were a team mired in disenchantment and disarray.
Looking ahead, Mandela's new nation was scheduled to hold the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a tournament which, at best, would see the weak Springboks play patsy as the host of the world's rugby giants. The previous two World Cups, in 1987 and 1991, saw South Africa banned as punishment for Apartheid.
Some critics joked that Invictus was the first ever film in which Matt Damon played someone other than Matt Damon. But Damon's portrayal of Springboks captain Francois Pienaar met well with Morgan Freeman's role as Mandela. The film brought to life the relationship between these two men, a white Afrikaaner and a black former political prisoner, amidst the heavy inertia of the country's brutal history.
Together, Pienaar and Mandela, through rugby, took on the task of reuniting the country amidst the quiet efforts of Mandela to reconcile black aspirations with white fears.
And while there is no written account of the original meeting with Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar or the conversation within, it is believed that Mandela met with the country's rugby captain, to ask him to inspire his team toward winning the '95 World Cup at home.
Before the start of competition the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, toured Robben Island. In the film, the team captain visits Mandela's old cell.
In truth, winning the Rugby World Cup was no easy task. First, South Africa had to face the defending world champions, Australia, in a match few thought they had a chance to win. Worse yet, a new behemoth within the sport, the mighty New Zealand All Blacks, had been on a winning rampage since the 1991 cup and were believed to be totally unbeatable.
But to the surprise of both the visiting teams and the rugby elite, inspiration and reconciliation would go a long way. Mandela's men beat Australia in the opening match, 27-18, before steamrolling over Romania five days later. After beating Canada 20-0, South Africa's starting squad of 15 men won their group and advanced to the knockout stage of the tournament.
The Springboks' campaign to the cup went on a tear, as South Africa dazzled both whites, the nation's traditional rugby fans, and blacks, a group that in years past preferred both soccer and any team playing against the Springboks. South Africa eventually went on to the finals to battle New Zealand, winning a hard fought contest in overtime, 15-12.
As the final whistle blew to end the World Cup, celebrations in the streets looked to become the start of healing and a new peace that few South Africans, black or white, thought could ever happen. With a weighty support and influence from a great man off the field, Mandela --The 16th Man-- the Springboks became the country's team, the team of all South Africans.
Rest in Peace, Madiba.