The other Superbowl

While everyone else watched the Superbowl last night, I watched the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Or, rather, Clint Eastwood’s take on South Africa’s sport, politics, and forgiveness: Invictus.

In my defense, I didn’t actually know it was Superbowl Sunday.

(Oh wait. Maybe that’s not such a great defense. I plead Canadianitis.)

For those who don’t know the film’s premise: Mandela becomes President of South Africa, turns an Afrikaner game (rugby) into a national symbol, victories abound, and many white people hug black children.

I emerged happy. It effectively manipulated the underdog-wins-pleasure-zone of my brain–in both the sport and political arenas. That alone is worth nine dollars.

Fundamentally this is a movie about leadership: the power of one man’s compassion and principle to carry the day–be that a country or a rugby match.

It is also, perhaps unintentionally, a movie about luck: luck that leads a failing rugby team to triumph in the last minutes of overtime; luck in Mandela’s gamble to make a symbol of Apartheid into a source of national unity.

To me, that makes the movie a powerful metaphor for the South Africa of 1994. The country tilted towards civil war. Leadership and luck pulled it back.

For someone who studies war for a living, this is a difficult thing to digest. Social scientists want systemic factors to operate; levers to pull; policies to manipulate. But leadership and luck, these reside in the error term. My considered belief: I think Clint Eastwood may be closer to the truth than the social scientists.

I retreat, therefore, into sentiment. In the movie, Morgan Freeman (Mandela) gives Matt Damon (the Rugby Captain) a copy of Invictus, a stirring poem he kept on a scrap of paper in prison.

In reality, however, Mandela gave Pienaar a different passage, Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; 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.

Go to sleep tonight wishing for more Mandelas.