Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Counter rucking

We had to memorize "Invictus" back in seventh grade, and it's a fairly easy poem to keep in one's memory. So when the movie about South Africa's victory over New Zealand in the 2005 Rugby World Cup came out about a year ago, my curiosity was piqued. (My rugby-playing Kiwi bro-in-law also rushed out to see it.)

Since New Zealand won it this year - and I had some free time over Christmas break - I finally watched it. I do tend to like movies about sports teams: in the end, they're about working out differences and cooperating, which is why they also make such great parallel stories about nation-shaping and identity-forging.

But I'll admit, I was a little disappointed with Invictus. I wanted to love it, because the set-up was so great: a Nobel Peace Prize-wining man who spent 27 years in prison becomes president of a country struggling with racial strife and poverty and all the other legacies of apartheid, and an almost-all-white rugby team comes from behind to unite their divided country and win the World Cup. It's a great story. But for some reason, I found the characters to be pretty one-dimensional: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela was always the wise Madiba and only seemed like an ordinary human in a few scenes, when his estrangement from his family is mentioned. Similarly, Matt Damon as the national rugby captain seems to just shuffle along - there's never any insight into his words or actions.

To me, the most compelling characters weren't the rugby team or the history-making President; the motley crew that made up Mandela's security detail were actually the most fascinating. Rugby was irrelevant to their transition from old guard to integrated unit, from pre-apartheid suspicions of each other to trusting each other as a cohort protecting the President. That was the story I was looking for in this movie, with rugby as the metaphor. Turns out, it didn't really need rugby to tell it.

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