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Clint Eastwood takes on Mandela.

'INVICTUS': Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star.
  • 'INVICTUS': Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star.

What does an American audience really know about Nelson Mandela? That he's a civil rights leader? Spent years in prison? That he's a former president of South Africa? Maybe, but it's fairly safe to say that Mandela's attempt at using rugby to unite South Africa is going to be a new story for most.  

The Clint Eastwood-helmed film begins as Mandela (Morgan Freeman), released after three decades in prison, begins his presidency. Though faced with dire economic and political problems, the president takes an interest in the country's rugby team, the Springboks, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Mandela's initial dealings with the team (and the country) do not always inspire a lot of good will, such as his decision to keep the team's colors and anthem the same despite their reminder of the apartheid era.

Eastwood takes his time in revealing Mandela's motives and setting up the evolution of the Springboks, which makes the first 30 minutes of the film sluggish and uneven.

Mandela's hope is to inspire Pienaar to lead his team to the World Cup, but the team needs a lot of work. Aside from grueling practices, the president has them mentor younger, black children as a bit of PR. Mandela's motives are illustrated in a scene early in the film where we see mostly white men practicing rugby on a field as poor black kids play soccer on the other side of the street. Rugby is the white man's sport, but Mandela is going to change that.

Integral to the film is the story of Mandela's security team, headed by loyal and cautious Jason Tshabalala and his team of black bodyguards. Mandela's decision to augment his force with white Afrikaners doesn't go over well with Tshabalala and his men. But, as you might have guessed, Mandela's goal is for black and white to unite toward a shared goal. It's a message, combined with the film's sentimental score and slow-motion reaction sequences in the big game against the “undefeatable” New Zealand, that comes across a bit heavy-handed, but Eastwood has crafted such a well-put-together film you can forgive him.  

Morgan Freeman is great, as expected. Damon leaves something to be desired. Maybe the actor got hung up on delivering a believable South African accent rather than a complete and consistent performance.

 

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