Unlike a lot of my critic pals, I actually liked Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which may have been conventional in its “sport unites us”/“racism is bad” message, but was subtle in showing how in politics as in athletics, following time-honored rituals can create a feeling of continuity, and thus control. (Act like a leader, in other words, and many will follow. ) In fact, Invictus may have spoiled me for “The 16th Man,” Cliff Bestall’s 30 For 30 episode that tells exactly the same story—about how the 1995 World Cup run of South Africa’s national rugby team helped alleviate some of the racial strife after apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela took power—but tells it in a way that hits all the high points with little of the movie’s social or emotional detail.
Granted, this is a hell of a story, no matter how it’s told. “The 16th Man” begins with a brief history of apartheid and its immediate aftermath, as some Afrikaners began forming militias to protect themselves from potential reprisals by the black population, while some democratically elected black representatives drafted legislation designed to purge the nation of remnants of its racist past. With emotions running high, Nelson Mandela—who’d been imprisoned by the white authorities for 27 years—attempted several stealthy reconciliation tactics, including helping to bring the Rugby World Cup to South Africa and throwing his support behind the national team. Mandela was jeered by his black constituents for wearing a Springbok cap at public appearances, while the team itself wasn’t sure what to make of Mandela showing up at practices and referring to them by name. But by the time the World Cup was over, Mandela’s gamble had paid off, and South Africa had taken the first steps toward a new, integrated identity. (Though let’s not kid ourselves… there was still a long way to go.)
Maybe it’s because of the narration by Invictus star Morgan Freeman—also one of this doc’s producers—or maybe it was the proliferation of straightforward talking-head interviews, but I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout “The 16th Man” that I was watching a glorified DVD extra. Bestall lines up all the major on- and off-field moments of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup journey, and gets all the major players to give a comment or two, most of which just reiterate what Freeman says. The approach couldn’t be much blander. But the images remain strong—and not just the famous shots of Mandela shaking the Springboks’ hands, or the team engaging in last-minute heroics. I was glad that Bestall included the story of the Springboks touring Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island, and the way their championship match against New Zealand began with the All Blacks doing their traditional Maori haka. Like Invictus, “The 16th Man” gets that the real story here isn’t the underdog sports drama, but the ways that a wounded nation can embrace its own troubled history, and make overcoming it a point of pride that all its citizens can share.
-I still don’t really understand rugby. I would’ve liked more of an explanation of the game, and what it means to the people who love it. (Though I imagine that if I were a rugby fan, I’d have found such a thing insulting, much like I’d be annoyed if last week’s 30 For 30 had paused the Ricky Williams story to explain the rules of American football.)
-Francois Pienaar looks a lot like Sting, yes?
-I’ll be curious to hear how “The 16th Man” played to those of you who haven’t already seen Invictus. Did it seem too dry, or did not knowing the story already make it more gripping? Am I being too hard on this one? Or not hard enough?