I like a good sports film. And while I can hear your eyeballs rolling there have been some great ones over the years. It's a fairly simple equation and a very easy genre to set up a protagonist with a hurdle to overcome.
The classics like The Bad News Bears, Paper Lion, Bull Durham, Rudy, The Karate Kid, Remember the Titans, have that wonderful narrative of the loser made good or a sense of the theatrical wonder of a live sporting event or the interaction between the athlete and the sport.
But generally the protagonist (the team) has to overcome the hurdle (winning games) despite their flaw (not being very good, being a very heterogeneous group, external issues such as money) to beat the antagonist (the best and most arrogant team in the league).
It's a formula that has worked in thousands of sports films. And with it, sports films can be used to address a number of social issues.
In this fashion racial harmony (or rather the lack thereof) is a fairly obvious topic for a sports film to use. Remember the Titans did a rather good job with the true story of a local town dealing with integration in American high schools in the 1960s. But it works because, like many sports films, what makes the team members different is the hurdle for the team to overcome to defeat the antagonist (the best team in the league, and the league itself, who were all whites). In Invictus the conflict between blacks and whites is the antagonist. And that's where the problem starts.
Just like a war on Terror, a rugby game against Racial Tension doesn't really work. For a start I doubt Racial Tension would be able to decide on a uniform colour.
So we get to the final match and the big bad All Blacks are finally seen. This is what stands between South Africa and their realised dream of a rainbow nation: a team of racially diverse players who are renowned as one of the greatest teams of all time. So how do you make them the bad guys? Apparently you don't. In fact you don't even mention them until very late in the film and then you just set them up as unbeatable unless you, I dunno, do "something" to Jonah Lomu.
Both Lomu and the haka are let downs, despite being foreshadowed to death. And Andrew Mehrtens is portrayed as a wee fella with a bowl cut… oh wait that was accurate.
So maybe I had it wrong, maybe Invictus isn't a sports film. Maybe it's a film with sport in it? In which case it's just a string of (not very) inspirational speeches.
This para contains spoilers, scroll past it to avoid them. If you were wondering the film does seem to allude to that rumour. In one scene Mandela converses with his officials about coming up with a way to for them to beat the All Blacks off the field and put them off their game. And in another scene, before the final match, Pienaar tells his wife that he's not nervous because the game is "already taken care of". Conspiracy theorists, go nuts.
Also not a sports film is Whip It. Whip It is a coming of age film with sport as a vehicle. Which is fine. Except that I saw the film with the Wellington Richter City roller girls and there was much derision afterwards of the skill of certain actors and depictions of the sport. I was also able to look down at Jimmy Fallon's portrayal of the MC.
Both films suffer from the fact that at the end you find yourself not really rooting for the underdog protagonist's team. Or rather, not really hating the final opposition. Even as an All Black fan I should've been happy for South Africa to win the cup, because it's a movie and I should be cheering for the protagonist. But I wasn't.
In fact I came out thinking it would've been a better ending if the All Blacks won. Which is also what I thought back in 1995.