Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
—William Ernest Henry (1875)
How curious that Italian-silent, anti-hero, deadly cop, occasionally lovable leading man and most certainly filmmaker par excellence, Clint Eastwood, would put his extraordinary talent and reputation into a film that is so saccharine that no one could watch it without contracting cavities.
Loosely woven from John Carlin’s book (Playing the Enemy), screenwriter Anthony Peckman has crafted an unbearably black-and-white script that screams for even one moment of grey.
As Nelson Mandela, Morgan Freeman is perfectly, lovingly cast. His every look, costume and nuance are at one with the long-suffering leader. Sadly, the tragic back-story of years of penal servitude, stunning release and equally tragic personal life were left for another day. Here, everything is beautiful. The oppressed and oppressor security guards quickly bury their differences, the sole black player on Team Springboks—Chester Williams (McNeil Williams)—is readily accepted by his mates (who even learn to love the anthem), inspiring the country to cheer them onto 1995 World Cup rugby victory. The kids in the impoverished ghettos only need one visit by the predominantly white athletic warriors to forgive and forget. Even a skinny “aboriginal” boy quickly outlives the threatening stares of the stadium police, soon sharing a coke with his instant buds. Who knew that truth and reconciliation was so simple?
Playing the team’s captain François Pienaar, extra-blond Matt Damon offers a convincing accent and sturdy build but, again at one with the script, can’t seem to find the tenor, tone and grit that on-and-off-the-field leadership requires to score more than points.
All of that withstanding, the film is a visual triumph thanks in large part to Tom Stern’s you-are-there scrums and the magical editing of Joel Cox and Gary Roach. A quick cutaway to a solitary dog in the usually crowded streets of the slums during the final is a cinematic and metaphorical gem that arrives too late in the game to achieve anything other than the wish that many more such insightful moments might have come from the first half’s playbook.
Incorporating the poem above (kept by Mandela during his 27-year incarceration on Robben Island) into the script instead of the excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech (actually given by Mandela as further inspiration for Pienaar and his lads) unwittingly, provides what should have been a ground-breaking film with its own epitaph: “[The man …] who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Let’s hope Freeman is afforded another chance. JWR