“I am the master of my fate,” English poet William Ernest Henley wrote in “Invictus,” his 1875 poem. “I am the captain of my soul.” South African anti-apartheid dissident Nelson Mandela copied the poem, whose title means, “Unconquered,” and tacked it onto a wall of his prison cell. During 27 years of captivity, he needed such inspiration.

After his release in 1990 and then election as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, the poem continued to inspire the beleaguered leader. In 1995, he gave a copy of it to Afrikaner rugby player. Francois Pienaar to convince the younger man to lead his underdog team to the world championship in the World Cup. And now, in director Clint Eastwood’ latest film, Invictus, the original poem and its extraordinary legacy come to the big screen in a powerful, spare, subtle portrayal of leadership.

My first viewing of Invictus, I am sorry to say, left me disappointed. Although I don’t like sports, I love sports films, especially the David vs. Goliath themes of most of them. I was expecting the genre’s familiar start with defeat, the gradual and plottable growth of confidence and the building of the team, and then the eventual tearful triumph in the midst of thousands of onlookers. All that did happen in the film, but it didn’t have the emotional pull of the usual sports film, nor the up close and personal slices of the team members in conflict convention. I dismissed Invictus as a well-meaning but ultimately forgettable film.

Except that I couldn’t forget it. For days afterwards, bits and pieces of the film would invade my thoughts like sparks after a flashbulb encounter. I realized it wasn’t the sports aspect of the film that I was remembering, but the visceral presence of Nelson Mandela created by Morgan Freeman’s haunting portrayal of him.

I kept returning to the stately presence of Morgan’s Mandela, his charismatic nobility, which for him was inherent, as the grandson of an African king. The film’s script, by Anthony Peckham (Don’t Say a Word), based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin, didn’t create a saint out of Mandela. He is charming, yes, always, which makes him a manipulator so masterful that his quarries were besotted by his wiles and agreed to do his bidding before they knew what they were doing. Age 75 when he took office, the burden of leadership hangs heavy on Mandela. He is a melancholy man, bringing dashes of humor up from a well of literally tortured loneliness. His 98-some thousand days of captivity destroyed his personal life, alienating him from his wives and children. “Madiba,” his honorary clan title, might be the father of a nation of 42 million souls, but his own daughter won’t talk to him.

I realized that part of the reason I was distanced from the film is that I didn’t know that much about South Africa, especially since the events of the film, while certainly central to my awareness when they happened 13 years ago, had faded in time. And the lean beauty of Eastwood’s direction meant the film doesn’t hit you over the head with information. One scene is meant to encapsulate several themes at the same time. But without a firm historical context in which to place the film, I felt lost.

So I researched South Africa, Mandela, and the World Cup in 1995 and watched the film again. The second time I loved it. A little research had given me the perspective I needed to appreciate the powerful story and the film’s subtle treatment of it. Thus, I do urge filmgoers to do as I did and you might enjoy the film the first time as much as I did the second.

Mandela became obsessed with leading post-apartheid South Africa out of its ugly past and into the future. Despite the fact that blacks were treated horribly by the minority Afrikaner society and its puppet government, Mandela wanted the country now to stand as a bastion of reconciliation. The nonviolent principles of Gandhi were his guiding mottos, not the baser instincts of the French Revolution. Naysayers said South Africa would descend into civil war, that blood would be running in the streets of Johannesburg. Mandela wanted to prove them wrong.

Mandela’s administration had huge problems to solve: crime, education, poverty. But he knew the country needed something to unify its emotional spirit, to bring diverse peoples together into an ideal that transcended both color and history. In a flash of insight, and being a former rugby player himself, he decided rugby would be his partner. He envisioned South Africa as the winner of the 1995 World Cup, which was scheduled to be played in Johannesburg. Billions of people worldwide would be watching the games and seeing the new South Africa. He wanted them to see a world champion.

To even the most dedicated of Mandela’s supporters, the idea was absurd. The national team, Springbok, was usually dead last in competition. It was so identified with Afrikaners that black African rugby fans rooted for the competition.

But no one counted on the captain of the rugby team. As played by Matt Damon, in a surprising low-key tour de force performance, Francois Pienaar is an average guy who finds himself challenged into greatness. He accepts Mandela’s mandate to not only change the role of rugby throughout the country by a daunting schedule of public appearances but to guide his motley crew into a team of champions.

The first year of Mandela’s office and the lead up to the World Cup is told, not in the broad strokes of an historian’s wide-bristled pen, but in the smaller personal stories favored by dramatists. In the character of Brenda (Adjoah Andoh), Mandela’s right-hand assistant, we see the inside nature of his administration. She is his conscience, his worrier, his chief cheerleader, yet she constantly questions what she considers his foolhardy concentration on rugby.

Mandela directs that his security forces be integrated, much to the displeasure of its black leader, Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgorge) , who reminds Mandela that the white men he wants to join the guard could have very well been the men who set out to kill him in the old days. Nevertheless Mandela insists that “reconciliation starts here.” At first wary, sometimes hateful, the guards become united in their professional desire to protect the president.

Considered the most efficient of contemporary directors, Eastwood has created another one of his signature no-fluff, old-fashioned films. Yet, as always, it is replete with visual touches that prove he is one of our major cinematic storytellers. When Francois Pienaar visits Mandela’s old prison cell, he is horrified to spread out his arms and realize that is as far as he can reach. He imagines Mandela in the cell, year after year, and “sees” him in the quarry outside using a small hammer to pound huge rocks into gravel. You can’t forget such imagery. And that is Eastwood’s point.

Note: Nelson Mandela is now 90 years old, and living in quiet retirement.

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