The second (and quite possibly last) film I have been involved with is Invictus, based on my book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" / "Invictus" about former South African president Nelson Mandela....released in the US and South Africa on 11 December 2009, and due to appear all over Europe in January and February 2010.
 There’s a whole long story as to how this came about, but the key point is that I met Morgan Freeman by absolute chance in a small town in Mississippi in June 2006 and it all took off from there. He had been wanting to play Mandela for several years but had not found a filmable story. This, it turned out, was it. Five months later we closed a deal, a screenwriter called Tony Peckham came over from California to pick my brains for a week. The script he came up with was great, faithful to Mandela and to the spirit of the epic political transition over which he presided,. Morgan Freeman loved it. So did his pal Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros too. Freeman plays Mandela, Matt Damon plays the South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, and Eastwood directed. The film was shot entirely on location in South Africa. Shooting lasted two months, ending in early May 2009.

Invictus poster
John Carlin & Clint Eastwood copyright

Clint Eastwood and John Carlin on location in South Africa


An Actor Nails the Cadence and the Charm

Published: December 2, 2009

MORGAN FREEMAN has been cast as God — twice — so he evidently has no trouble projecting moral authority. The challenge of portraying Nelson Mandela, then, was not the size of the halo, but knowing the performance would be measured against the real, familiar Mandela, and his myth. “If we can say any part of acting is hard, then playing someone who is living and everybody knows would be the hardest,” Mr. Freeman said in a phone interview.
The role has defeated actors as varied as Danny Glover (the 1987 TV film “Mandela”), Sidney Poitier (“Mandela and de Klerk,” 1997, also for TV) and Dennis Haysbert (“Goodbye Bafana,” 2007), in vehicles that were reverential and mostly forgettable.
But as someone who studied Mr. Mandela over the course of three years while he replaced an apartheid regime with a genuine democracy, I found Mr. Freeman’s performance in the film “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood, uncanny — less an impersonation than an incarnation.
He gets the rumble and halting rhythm of Mr. Mandela’s speech, the erect posture and stiff gait. There is a striking physical resemblance, enhanced by the fact that Mr. Freeman, 72, is just a few years younger than Mr. Mandela was in the period the film covers. More important, Mr. Freeman conveys the manipulative charm, the serene confidence, the force of purpose, the hint of mischief and the lonely regret that made Mr. Mandela one of the most fascinating political figures of his time. This is not, as the film’s screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, put it, “Rich Little doing Mandela in Vegas.”
It’s hard to say whether Americans at this moment in their history crave a 130-minute parable of racial reconciliation built around a 1995 World Cup rugby match in South Africa. Audiences and movie critics will render their verdict on “Invictus,” which reaches theaters Friday.
But we could probably do worse, as an antidote to the cynicism on the noisy margins of our political life, than spending a couple of hours watching Mr. Mandela calculating how to knit together a grotesquely divided society.
The story of “Invictus,” drawn from John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” begins with the newly inaugurated president of post-apartheid South Africa looking for ways to enlist his fearful white minority — with its talent, wealth, resentment and capacity for insurrection — in the business of governing a democracy. His inspired stratagem is to embrace the Springboks national rugby team, the darlings of the formerly ruling Afrikaners and, for most nonwhite South Africans, a symbol of brutal and humiliating repression.
The new president sets the team’s captain (François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon) the improbable goal of winning the World Cup; the tournament is to be held in South Africa in a year, and the Springboks are given little chance. Mr. Mandela sets himself the considerably more improbable goal of uniting country behind the team.
So loathed were the Springboks that those few blacks who showed up for matches rooted loudly for the other side. So the rugby campaign was one of Mr. Mandela’s boldest strokes of statecraft, no less impressive for the fact that the euphoria he achieved could barely begin to extinguish three centuries of racial antagonism.
Mr. Freeman’s occupational association with South Africa began with a role in the 1992 film “The Power of One,” the pious tale of a white boy coming to enlightenment in apartheid South Africa. Soon thereafter Mr. Freeman made his directing debut with a more tough-minded film, “Bopha!,” the story of a conflicted black South African cop, played by Mr. Glover. (Lori McCreary, who was a producer on that film and is a producer of “Invictus,” said she tried to lure Mr. Freeman for the lead part in “Bopha!,” but was told he “doesn’t do accents.”)
According to Mr. Freeman, his mission to portray Mr. Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from the subject himself. At a press conference to promote the publication of his 1994 memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” someone asked Mr. Mandela who should play him in the movie.
“And he said he wanted me,” Mr. Freeman recalled. “So it became. That was the whole sanction, right there.”
The South African film producer Anant Singh, who bought the movie rights to “Long Walk,” arranged for Mr. Mandela and Mr. Freeman to meet.
“I told him that if I was going to play him, I was going to have to have access to him,” the actor said. “That I would have to hold his hand and watch him up close and personal.” As president Mr. Mandela could be surprisingly approachable — he once allowed me, the New York Times correspondent in South Africa at the time, to shadow him during a day of his presidency, something I can scarcely imagine an American president allowing. But since stepping down in 1999, and especially since his memory began to fail him, he has become more reclusive, protected by a staff that worries he might embarrass himself. But he obliged Mr. Freeman.
“Whenever we’ve been in proximity in one city or another, I have had access to him,” the actor said. Their encounters ranged from tea at Mr. Mandela’s home in Johannesburg to a charity fund-raiser in Monaco. But through multiple screenplays Mr. Mandela’s sprawling memoir proved too unwieldy for a film, and Mr. Freeman abandoned the project.
“There’s just too much to whittle down to movie size,” Mr. Freeman said.
Then, in 2006, Mr. Carlin, a British journalist who had covered Mr. Mandela in the 1990s, was in Mississippi to write an article on poverty in the American South for El Pais, the Spanish daily that now employs him. He ended up in the Clarksdale living room of Mr. Freeman’s business partner. When the host went to the kitchen for a bottle of wine, Mr. Carlin recalls, he turned to Mr. Freeman.
 “This is your lucky day,” he said. “I have a movie for you.”
“Oh, really,” Mr. Freeman replied. “What’s it about?”
“It’s based on a book I am writing about an event that distills the essence of Mandela’s genius, and the essence of the South African miracle.”
“Oh,” Mr. Freeman replied, “you mean the rugby game?”
Mr. Carlin’s proposal for his book had already been circulating in Hollywood, and it had caught Mr. Freeman’s eye.
Mr. Freeman sought Mr. Mandela’s blessing, bought the rights and persuaded Mr. Eastwood to direct. (Their two previous collaborations, “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” both won best picture Oscars.) They hired Mr. Peckham, a South African émigré, to write the script.
Mr. Freeman insists that if the portrayal transcends impersonation, that is largely Mr. Peckham’s doing.
As an actor, “you’re looking for the physical: how he stands, how he walks, how he talks,” he said. “Nuances he has in terms of tics or movements. Things that sort of define him. The inner life has to come off the page. Whatever he’s thinking, I don’t know. You have a script, and you stick to that script, and the script is going to inform you of everything.”
While Mr. Freeman brought to the project a decade of firsthand observation, Mr. Peckham, who left South Africa in 1981, had never — and still has not — met Mr. Mandela.
“He was a nonperson for my entire growing up,” Mr. Peckham said in a phone interview from his home in California. “You weren’t even supposed to have pictures of him. Everything I learned about him I learned from a distance, after I came here.”
For the feel of Mr. Mandela’s everyday speech, the screenwriter mined written documents, especially transcripts of a 1998 court case in which the South African president was subjected to a hostile grilling by lawyers for the national rugby hierarchy. (It tells you something about the incompleteness of the redemptive turn depicted in “Invictus” that, three years after the famous rugby match, Mr. Mandela appointed a commission to study whether the powerful rugby union was thwarting the advancement of black players.)
Mr. Peckham’s main difficulty in writing a script, he found, was to do justice to such a familiar and beloved figure without tipping into idolatry.
“It was extremely difficult, because in the period I write about he was in many respects at his most saintly — leading the country the way he did,” Mr. Peckham said. The danger of hagiography “was something we all knew was an issue and that I struggled with every day while I was writing it. With the additional complication that we didn’t want to be offensive and disrespectful either. It’s easy enough to kind of show someone’s feet of clay if you’re prepared to be brutal about it, but it’s not so easy when you want to be respectful without hero-worshiping.”
The notion they settled on to humanize the hero was that while Mr. Mandela was making a nation he was neglecting his own family. It is certainly true that Mr. Mandela’s marriage to the cause contributed to his two divorces and his estrangement from some of his children. In the movie there is a scene of Mr. Mandela, who could always summon the words to move a crowd, failing to connect with his resentful grown daughter Zinzi.
“Knowing what I know of Madiba personally,” Mr. Freeman said, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name, “his real concern is not for what he did, but more for what he didn’t do. He had family obligations that he couldn’t live up to, one, because he was in prison, and they just wouldn’t allow it, and he had so many other obligations. The father of the nation is usually less than the father of his family.”
South Africans listening to Mr. Freeman’s rendering may agree that he “doesn’t do accents.” (He says “Spring-BAHK” where Mandela would say “Spring-BOHK.”) But Mr. Mandela’s distinctive voice is less about accent than cadence, and Mr. Freeman gets that precisely right.
Mr. Carlin, who covered Mr. Mandela in his political prime and spent many hours with him for the rugby book, said Mr. Freeman “channels Mandela beautifully.”
Most important, Mr. Carlin said, Mr. Freeman, abetted by the screenwriter, “impressively conveys the giant solitude of Mandela.”
Though an admirer of Mr. Freeman, Mr. Carlin has seen Mr. Mandela gotten wrong often enough that he braced himself for disappointment. After attending a screening in Paris last month, he sent an ecstatic e-mail message: “They didn’t screw it up!” he wrote. “WHAT a relief!”
For me the realization that Mr. Freeman had nailed it came as the film ended. Alongside the closing credits came still photos of the actual rugby match, and the actual Mandela. And for a second I wondered, “Who is that impostor?”

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If You Watch The Preview for Invictus, You'll Read The Book

Jesse Kornbluth

If you read nothing else this month, please read pages 201 to 253 of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation.

It won't take long.

By the time Nelson Mandela walks into that stadium, your heart will be pounding. When he enters the Springboks locker, you'll be in tears. And you'll cry pretty much straight through to the end.

All because, in 1995, the South African Rugby team beat New Zealand to win the World Cup.

If you're like most Americans, you know that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison --- 18 of them in a tiny cell on Robben Island --- and emerged without hatred to spearhead a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. But you probably know nothing about the 1995 Rugby World Cup match. John Carlin's brilliant book corrects that, and, along the way, presents a concise biography of a remarkable man.

It is a measure of the quality of this man and his country's World Cup team that Morgan Freeman has produced a film based on the book --- and is playing Nelson Mandela. Matt Damon is François Pienaar, the South African rugby captain. And Clint Eastwood directs. The film opens in mid-December.

Why am I urging you to read a book I pushed on you in 2008 --- when, in a matter of weeks, you can get most of its story and message, plus snacks, in two hours?

You know why. It's the news. The headlines change, but the subject is always the same --- divisiveness. Us vs. Us. It's stupid and counter-productive, and if we don't find a better way of talking to one another and living with one another, a very small group of very rich, very cynical people will watch from armored fortresses while the rest of us tear each other limb from limb.

I'd like to avoid that. And one way to start to change the conversation is to poke around in history and see how others --- out of smarts or desperation or just the luck of great leadership --- found their way out of that maze.

Like South Africa, however briefly.

In these pages, Nelson Mandela is a brilliant politician with a genius for disarming his enemies. To Mandela, everyone is human, everyone can be reached. The only question is how. In prison, he would introduce his lawyer to his "guard of honor" --- and his jailers would find themselves shaking hands with an attorney they loathed. And he used his dead time in prison to teach himself Afrikaans, read the Afrikaans newspapers and familiarize himself with Afrikaner history.

Rugby is the favorite sport of Afrikaners, the dominant white tribe in South Africa --- "apartheid's master race." All but one of the 15 players on the Springbok team were white. In a stadium that held 62,000, 95% of the crowd would be white. No wonder that blacks saw the Boks as a symbol of oppression.

"Don't address their brains," Mandela believed. "Address their hearts." One direct way to do that was through sports. People love their teams; the connection is purely emotional. If the Springboks could come to engage both blacks and whites, that might end the sense among blacks that sports in South Africa was "apartheid in tracksuits" --- and might make whites more accepting of blacks as equals.

Mandela did not just lay out a goal. He met and charmed the white lords of rugby, then lobbied for the World Cup to be played in South Africa. He invited François Pienaar, the Springboks captain, to visit him and encouraged him to see his sport as "nation building". Soon the team was learning how to sing "Nkosi Sikele", the black national anthem. And, because a storybook fantasy was becoming reality, the Springboks advanced steadily to the World Cup finals.

The pages that are your homework begin on the morning of the championship game. One of Mandela's bodyguards got an idea: Mandela should enter the stadium wearing a green-and-gold Springbok jersey. Mandela improved on the idea --- his jersey, he said, should have Pienaar's number on it.

Across town, the players had been staying at a hotel. To calm their nerves, they went out for an early morning jog. As they left, Pienaar recalled, "Four little black kids selling newspapers recognized us and chased after us and started calling out our names --- they knew almost everyone on that team --- and the hairs on my neck stood on end... It was the moment when I saw, more clearly than ever before, that this was far bigger than anything we could ever have imagined."

Five minutes before kickoff, Nelson Mandela walked onto the field to greet the players. To the Springbok jersey, he had added a Springbok hat. "When they caught sight of him," Carlin writes, "the crowd seemed to go dead still." And then the chant --- from the almost all-white crowd --- began: "Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!"

I'm going to leave it there, so as not to spoil the magic of the next pages for you. Just know that what happened in that stadium that afternoon was a crazy quilt of glory: atonement, forgiveness, liberation and celebration. It's the kind of event that happens when people who have known only hatred and fear drop the burden of history and move past their differences. Winning a game? That day South Africa climbed a mountain.

If the film is as good as the preview, I like to think that American audiences will cheer. Because --- for once --- a national leader had perfect pitch, and all of his countrymen knew it, and they all got it right.

In our country, hate sells. Even the idealists among us must be wondering if the idea of brotherhood can compete against it. Well, it can. It did.

Scoll Down

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