Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Friday: Playing the Enemy (a.k.a. Invictus)

About a month and a half after the September 11th attacks, the World Series pitted the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks against the powerhouse New York Yankees in what many observers of the sport consider to be one of the best playoff series of all time. But more importantly for the country, the seven-game series was something to rally around, a sign of life returning to normal. It was a moment of people coming together through sport.

John Carlin's Playing the Enemy (2008, Penguin) paints a stirring picture of a nation, South Africa, transitioning out of apartheid hatred and unifying around sport. But to call it a sports book would be a severe disservice, because Playing the Enemy manages to elevate beyond a simple sports story. In journalism, the term is "sports feature writing," where sports ties into a larger social issue and Carlin does it fantastically.

Several friends of mine have visited South Africa (one even stayed) and I found myself fascinated by that country. Carlin's book gives a thorough history of the internal struggles within South Africa leading up to the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which the country hosted. Mandela was a political genius and Carlin traces how he managed to meet with white leaders F. W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha and eventually be released from prison. Then, he bet his political capital on the Springboks national rugby team, captained by Francois Pienaar, to unite the nation during the World Cup. Carlin also tells the story of the Viljoen brothers who were split on the issue of ending apartheid and gives equal time to black aspirations of newfound equality and white fears of a vengeful Mandela. As the World Cup got closer and closer, the book veers more toward the sports aspect.

Carlin presents the story with a wide scope and I knew much more of South Africa's terrain, culture, demographics, and history than I did prior to picking up the book. Sports fans may feel like they're plodding though the first two-thirds of the book in order to get to the rugby action and conversely, politicos may be less interested in the rugby, but save for a bit of a slow-down in the middle of the book, I was invested from page to page. And that's the definition of a good read. Grade: 4/5 stars.

In the holiday season of 2009, Warner Bros. released two high-quality sports films based on books of true stories. The first, football drama The Blind Side, won Sandra Bullock an Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to The Hurt Locker. The second film, South African rugby drama Invictus, was met with mostly positive but not rapturous reviews like previous Clint Eastwood-directed films. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were both nominated for Oscars, but they, and the rest of the film's crew, came home empty-handed. Damon lost to Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds while Freeman lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.

Invictus tries to straddle both the sports aspect of the story and the political and as a result, it has a few quirks. Audiences unfamiliar with how rugby is played will be a bit lost in following the action. Also, the book's history of the years leading up to Mandela's release from prison and first few years after is completely cut from the film, save for a scene where the team visits Robben Island prison. However, the film's overall theme of sports acting as a unifier in a post-apartheid world shines through in several scenes, including one where the team does a publicity visit to a black village...

And my favorite scene in the movie, when Pienaar, played by Damon, meets with Freeman's President Mandela and they discuss how to make people perform better than they first thought possible...

Had I not read the book, I'd score Invictus a bit higher, but knowing that the whole back history was cut dampens the movie. The book itself is a slice of South African history and the movie is a slice of the slice. That's not to say the movie is bad. It has fine work behind the camera by Eastwood, a great soundtrack and Freeman and Damon do stellar jobs, but the total picture of the history didn't quite make the jump to celluloid. Grade: 4/5 stars.

Have you read Playing the Enemy or seen Invictus? What did you think?

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