INVICTUS….Carpe Diem on Steroids…(or)…A Cocktail of Timely Ideas…by Michael Palmer

On the surface, the film, Invictus, is stirring entertainment and a history lesson about a remarkable convergence of sport and statesmanship.  But, it is even more about the power of symbols and emotion to galvanize a force for change.  It is still more about the power of ideas to shape the direction of that force. 

The place is South Africa; the time is 1995.  Nelson Mandela is a free man after 27 years as a political prisoner who has become president of a post apartheid country still in racial turmoil.  The event is the World Cup of Rugby, being hosted by the usually formidable national team, The Springboks.  This year, however, the team is less than great but has the opportunity to help create needed national unity and self respect.  This true story is the account of Mandela’s forming of an unlikely alliance with the captain, Francois Pienaar, fostering a fever of multi racial support for what was typically viewed as the white man’s sport.  The storybook ending became one more chapter in Mandela navigating a political and social minefield, using sport and symbols, like some use music, to fuse cohesiveness…contributing to  an unexpected win of the championship by beating the seemingly indestructible New Zealand Team.

The film is notable, not just because it is well made and tells the story well, but because it embeds the narrative in the strength and grace of flawed men, Mandela and Pienaar, trying to do something noble, something “more than.”  It is a fascinating study of political leadership, social change, and individual pedigree.

The fiber of these men fits the Victorian poem from which the film takes its title; written by William Thomas Henley (“My head is bloody, but unbowed”).These showcase how powerful ideas and the wardrobe of words we use to clothe them, can be well, or in some cases, badly used.  For example, for Nelson Mandela, the poem was an inspiration in prison, but for Timothy McVeigh it was an arrogant and unremorseful statement as he was about to be executed for perpetrating the Oklahoma City bombing.  He had no last words, except to refer to his handwritten copy of the poem.

The Mandela/McVeigh spectrum is indicative of how the same ideas and words can be put to either grand or gross use.  The clear lesson is that it is the grand that should be the pursued prize, and that the “more than” factor can be lived out with great consequence.  There is no formula for this, but there are traits. It typically resembles being in possession of an intentional “Invictus” type quest. It is the whim of most New Year type resolutions which leaves them often as easy to make as to mock. And wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”? This sort of whim and uncertainty are best rivaled by the deliberate hunt for more; fiercely, albeit imperfectly, refusing to settle.

This refusal reflects a large kind of life which tends to own a maturing grasp of human nature in both its angst and its wonder. It’s a dualism where Hamlet meets Don Quixote, a melancholy knight of sorts. These are the ones who feel their own pain as well as the pain of others, and whose own wounds, instead of crippling, morph into a muscular care for the good of others. They understand the power of lost things as well as the tyranny of things past, aware that even a sight or sound or smell or word can retain all their abilities to wound intact. And more than that, it matters to them. It matters when they see someone whose body now resembles the question mark they have become. It matters when they see someone who is under such weight, that when they sit, the chair seems to groan in agreement. These people are in such a good place to be that they usually make others feel vaguely homesick…because they strangely feel like home.

Maybe most important for these types is that it is love that drives their story. Love is what prevents their story from feeling mechanical or contrived, the way you feel rusting machinery cranking away. They defy Rousseau’s self absorption and any kind of false kindness, which is often not much more than narcissism in disguise, a camouflaged egoism. And if you are going to fail, fail at loving. Sadly, too many love when it is convenient and fairly easy. For these, when faced with difficulty, it is a short walk to living in retreat, if not becoming harsh and severe, ending up swapping caring for meanness. Sometimes this is even visible when you compare a photo of that person’s face now with one taken several years earlier.    

Invictus type people tend toward authenticity; they refuse to phone in passable impersonations, lives that are more skywriting and sleepwalking than grounded realism. And they want their thinking to be vibrant, a floating set of anchors, constantly searching for better ways of seeing, all the while resisting their own ideology, and even their theology, ever becoming pathology.

Also, they are among those who believe that language itself can shape reality, and therefore respect and enjoy the work of words. They agree with Sartre that”words are loaded pistols” and ask with Sylvia Plath “what ceremony of words can patch the havoc?” They are looking for words that both adequately explain, and that make a difference.

The grim reality is that too many lives which could be grist for fascinating stories often aren’t. The lofty side of the Invictus story is more like “carpe diem” on steroids; like the seeing of an old year out and a new one in, with revised and revived ambition, fascination in the make.

The same Ernest Hemingway who wrote that “The world breaks everyone, but some are stronger at the broken places” also wrote that “Everything about him was old except his eyes, and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated (The Old Man and the Sea).” Embodying these traits means cobbling together the notions of “more than,” of love, of language, and of thinking, with the desire to unbreak someone’s heart as much as to fix a culture; to be a collusion of charm, quiet confidence, and courtesy; as well as to romp playfully in the day, being strong without being strident.

In regard to these things, the film exudes inspiration, how to summon it, and how to communicate it. And as such, while it is worth seeing…the ideas are worth even more.