Invictus loses the plot
February 10, 2010
Former Springboks captain Francois Pienaar poses with Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman at the London premiere of the film Invictus © Getty Images
One of the extra perks of a short break in South Africa was getting to see Invictus, the much hyped film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, before it was released in the UK.
It was supposed to be based on the book, originally called Playing the Enemy but now relaunched as Invictus by John Carlin.
For me the book is a masterpiece. Beautifully written it gives an insight into the state of the nation in the early 90s after Mandela had been released from prison and made me realise how close the new South Africa came to tearing itself apart as the right wing seriously considered armed resistance to the proposed new order.
I was there commentating on most of the international matches from 1992 through to the World Cup and despite a longstanding interest in South African politics had no idea at the time that it was not just Eugene Terreblanche and his Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging colleagues who were contemplating civil war.
Carlin's story interweaves all the various threads and shows just how skilful Mandela was in using rugby to keep the whites onside.
Sadly, the film does not do it justice. It is 'based' on the book only in the loosest sense and falls into just about every trap possible. Clint Eastwood has carved out quite a reputation as a serious director but totally loses the plot on this one.
He uses all the clichés you could possibly imagine and is quite prepared to play fast and loose with the facts to suit his narrative.
The famous incident where the South African Airways 747 flew over the stadium at about 500 feet half an hour before kick-off is a case in point. Eastwood has Mandela's chief of security in a panic for a few moments - he knows nothing about it and suspects the worst.
Simply not true - I was commentating on the build-up to the final with Trevor McDonald and we had a script telling us exactly what was going to happen. Nevertheless, we were terrified as well - it was so low we thought something had gone wrong for a moment.
We both dived and ducked beneath our desks before grinning sheepishly at each other and carrying on hoping that nobody had noticed. If the pilot had flown that low over a built up area in the UK he would still be in jail.
The script does him no favours but Freeman does a masterful impersonation of Mandela. I'm sure some South Africans will complain about his accent but he captured Mandela's way of speaking and many of his mannerisms beautifully.
Damon's Pienaar was not in the same league but he didn't really stand a chance. He is neither big enough or ugly enough and should never have taken the part.
If Pienaar had been a pretty boy back it might have worked but Damon just cannot play the hard man who leads by example with a touch of nastiness thrown in when necessary.
And he certainly cannot play rugby. We've seen a lot of bad sporting action from Hollywood over the years and this rates right down there with the worst. I was desperately searching to see who was credited with being the rugby consultant and unfortunately it was Chester Williams.
It was so corny it made the South African audience I watched it with laugh. Every arty director I have ever met wants to put a camera into the front row of the scrum and shoot up at the faces. Clint could not resist and failed miserably to capture the strain and the pain.
Somebody had obviously explained the scissors to him and he obviously thought this was really neat because we saw it time and again done at half pace and with the sort of exaggerated stylishness that schoolboys use when learning a new move on the practice field.
The kicking was even worse. Restarts scarcely got off the ground whilst Joel Stransky's winning drop goal was in the air for about five minutes - just like that slow motion sequence from Chariots of Fire.
Having brought in Zak Feaunati to play Jonah Lomu you might have thought we would get some crunch in the contact sequences but they too were as limp as two-day-old lettuce.
For all that it is worth a look. It does tug at the heart strings far too much and it is one dimensional and simplistic but Mandela did use rugby and the 1995 World Cup in particular very skilfully to keep the white right onside.
If you really want to know the full story, though, you must read the book. Playing the Enemy is a much better title than Invictus but I guess it just not Hollywood.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com