ESPN 30 for 30: The 16th Man (2010)

Directed by Cliff Bestall

In 2009 Clint Eastwood released the film entitled Invictus, which netted Morgan Freeman an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela, a seemingly natural role for such a huge figure as Freeman. He stepped into the shoes of Mandela with grace and ease. The film was well received, though was not up for any bigger awards like Best Picture, and perhaps that was because it was a sports movie, and even more so, a movie about the sport of rugby, which is not exactly the biggest sport going in the world. Mandela is a real character, the former president of South Africa who helped unite his native land after the hardships of apartheid, the gruesome rule by whites over the majority black population.

The 16th Man, as well as Invictus, is the story of how Nelson Mandela defied possibility and united his people under the banner of the national rugby team, Springbok, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was held in underdog South Africa. What is important to note about this ploy to bring the nation together is that rugby, and in fact the Springbok, had long been symbols of white supremacy during apartheid. Mandela, who had served the previous 20+ years in prison on Robben Island, was able to perform a miracle which was only mirrored by the rugby team, who ran through upset after upset on its way to defeating the world’s greatest team, the New Zealand All Blacks, for the World Cup title.

There is no way I could have wrote this review without having mentioned Eastwood’s film Invictus, which is a finely crafted film in its own right. I had a difficult time separating the two films as I watched The 16th Man, simply because they are telling the exact same story. But what sets this film apart as a little bit different is that it is non-fiction, featuring the real people, with real footage. Where Invictus was an interpretation of the events with actors, this was the events, as told by the people who were there, who were a part of it. It bears a little extra weight on top of an already great, compelling, inspiring tale with these circumstances.

As a 23 year old young man I was not there to fully experience the wonderful spirit that Mandela seems to have been and still is to this day, out of office. The idea of apartheid, the practice of it, the reality of it is as disturbing and unsettling as the Jim Crow days in America. The oppression of a single people is one of those things which is difficult to fathom, even as the phenomenon still happens today in certain parts of the world for certain groups of people. But when faced with such an atrocity, Mandela seems to embody the ability of pioneers such as Gandhi before him. The non-violent approach seems to work best, even if he was landed in jail originally for fighting for his beliefs with violence. When he was released he knew what needed to be done and his accepting approach, his ability to bridge the gap between the whites and blacks by using the Springbok club and their quest for a championship under national unity is inspiring to say the least.

There is nothing about the filmmaking which stands out as spectacular or innovative or bringing this story to new light or a new twist on it, but with a story such as this, there really is not much need to. The story is inspiring and interesting enough as it is. There has been a common theme among these 30 for 30 films which has been that they take a very traditional, undaring approach to these stories, failing to ever really inject any flair or style to the films. But I do not mean to demean the process because to this point the series has impressed and is certainly in the middle of a very nice streak of films with important, entertaining sports stories. The 16th Man had me at Mandela and while I have seen the story before in the form of Invictus, I was not any less moved by the power of the human spirit and the accomplishment of the impossible.

*** – Good

 

Written by Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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