<i>Invictus</i> Translation: Obama Needs Rugby

I wonder why there hasn't been more in the popular culture linking the two leaders -- Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela -- and their transcendent personal histories.
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During the opening moments of director Clint Eastwood's Invictus, when Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) is inaugurated as president of an after-apartheid South Africa, it dawned on me, it was a bigger twist of fate for Mandela to be president there than for Obama to be president here.

I wondered why there hasn't been more in the popular culture linking the two leaders and their transcendent personal histories. They both became their country's first black president after three centuries of white rule. They both rose to prominence from humble circumstances, and by following a path of education and activism. They both won the Nobel Peace Prize, largely for their efforts to restore diplomacy after periods of nationalistic isolation. And they're both leaders who practice a message of tolerance and forgiveness, despite whatever vitriol surrounds them. One faced the realities of post-apartheid; the other faces the myth of post-racism. (Some might posit they are both native-born Africans, but I digress...)

The point is, there are many similarities between these two leaders, and this movie, with its simple portrayal of a remarkable man who sought to unite a deeply divided nation in support of a rugby team renewed my hope in President Obama. I thought to myself, I need to give him another chance, to see the glass as half full.

In the film, Mandela makes several statements about understanding one's enemy, and, like Obama, is committed to governing all the people, not just those who voted for him. I thought, Hmmm: bipartisanship. Mandela sees his opportunity in the Springboks, a team synonymous with the old separatist South Africa. Obama has been looking for his opportunity to unite this country behind healthcare, economic reform, and war. These issues, though of grave importance, do not unify a nation. They actually serve to divide us more deeply. We need something symbolic to remind us we are one "team." Now I feel even worse that Obama and Oprah couldn't get us the Olympics.

Invictus isn't a great movie but it's got great moments. Eastwood said during a Q&A at the Director's Guild he'd thought for awhile "Morgan should play Mandela," but it was Freeman who brought the script to Eastwood. It's not a biopic in the conventional sense, but it does provide glimpses into Mandela's life, most notably a trip to the actual cell where he spent 27 years of his life on Robben Island. Eastwood shot Invictus on location, with an almost exclusively-South African cast. Matt Damon looks great as the captain of the Springboks - solidly fit, with bleached hair and what sounds like a pretty good Afrikaner accent. Latin is missing from my life, so, until I googled it, I didn't know "invictus" meant "unconquered." The movie's got more rugby than I've ever seen, not just on film, but anywhere. I'm into now. Might see some in real life.

On a scale of one to 10, one being "don't see," and 10 being "go see, even if you have to hire a sitter," I'd say, Invictus is a six: add it to your Netflix queue or watch it on pay-per-view. Those lucky enough to be on a trans-Atlantic flight next year will probably have a chance to see Invictus on the plane, since its political theme and World Cup rugby depictions will undoubtedly make the film more popular abroad than it is here.

I wonder if President Obama will see it. If he does, he may take heart when the pundits grouse about Mandela after only one day, asking in the press, "Is he qualified for the job?" Mandela answers, "It's a fair question." And indeed it is. There and then, here and now.

Invictus will open in limited theatrical release on December 11, 2009.

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