In perhaps the most inevitable casting decision in Hollywood history, Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela. Besides the resemblance, Freeman's certainly the right man to capture Mandela's gravitas and calm moral authority, and he also nails his oddly commanding yet wavering voice; you could plant a garden in the pauses between his words. Mandela held together a fractured nation, Freeman is tasked with holding together a film so elegant and relentlessly classy that it stops being a movie and becomes a glossy presentation piece for the museum of tolerance.
Things start promisingly, as we're shown Mandela's first days in office, having become South Africa's first black president in the country's first truly open election. He quickly — and shockingly — moves to retain as much of the old staff as he can, including former apartheid special police for the security detail, which rattles his longtime bodyguards. It's the first sign to loyal supporters — who call him by his tribal honorary title Madiba — that this president is more interested in forgiveness and progress than settling old scores.
That's the logic he uses in blocking an angry government panel keen to rename the Springboks, the national rugby team long ruled by white supremacy. Its bounding antelope logo and green and gold jerseys are seen as totem of the wicked oppressors by the blacks who root against them, and a symbol of pride to the whites who cheer them.
Mandela knows it's one thing to take away a man's government, it's another to take away his team. He also knows the key to successful nation-building is putting respect for the premise of the good of the nation above oneself, and so he recruits team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) as an unlikely partner. As hosts of the 1995 rugby World Cup, South Africa has a chance at positive press for once, but Mandela knows that to bring people together the team needs to win.
It's a stirring, true story, but director Clint Eastwood plays it more as grandiose legend than history. All the uplift makes the film shapeless, everyone is working so hard to be righteous they look ready to burst a blood vessel. Oddly, Eastwood doesn't have the guts to make the segregationist Afrikaners as detestable as they were: some characters grumble and grouse, but there are no real villains.
The film's near-terminal failing is that Damon's character is a cipher, required to do little but raise his chin, glint at the horizon and remain a good and decent soldier.
This is Eastwood at his most flowery; it's hard to believe that a movie involving a game as brutal as rugby can be this gentle.
Eastwood does pull off the neat trick of making the sport look exciting to American audiences, but there's too much of it in the third act, which is a ceaseless montage of muddy grass, grunting players and soaring field goals. This is masterful, contained filmmaking from a man who knows what he wants to say, but in his desire to inspire and appeal to our better angels, he slights the movie's drama. It might've really happened like this, but it's still hard to swallow that, after decades of strife, everything could be better in one shining moment, as if apartheid were some evil foreign cloud that mysteriously swept over the landscape, and was blown away with wishes and kind hearts.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.