Plaster saints make lousy protagonists, so it’s hard to imagine a truly compelling movie about Nelson Mandela—whatever his failings as a man, they’re no match for his status as the enduring face of the anti-apartheid movement. At a glance, though, Invictus, the latest film directed by Clint Eastwood, seems as if it might have found a way around the problem. Skipping right past the 27 years Mandela spent imprisoned, it begins with his election as South Africa’s president in 1994, focusing narrowly on his politically risky effort to heal his divided country by rallying the population—both black and white—behind its nearly all-white rugby team, the Springboks. (Blacks had been cheering for the opposition for decades.) Instead of the tale of a struggling martyr, then, we get a rousing sports drama, with Mandela (Freeman) convincing Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) that by improbably winning the 1995 World Cup, the team can single-handedly create a new national identity.
Wait a minute—that sounds a little sanctimonious, too, doesn’t it? Sadly, Invictus combines the plodding inertia of the great-man biopic with the creaky clichés of the big-game sports flick, resulting in a film that does almost nothing but congratulate itself for two solid hours. Freeman does a credible Mandela impersonation (apart from a shaky accent), but his screen image is already so ridiculously noble that playing this role amounts to putting a hat on a hat. Damon, for his part, has so little to do that the Matt Damon puppet in Team America: World Police, which says nothing but “Matt Damon!” over and over, seems more interesting by comparison. And unless you’re already familiar with rugby, don’t expect to follow the matches, as the rules are never explained (apart from the fact that forward passes are forbidden), and Eastwood has no sense of how to film bodies in violent motion, even resorting to dopey slo-mo for the climax. At least we don’t get “Ebony and Ivory” playing over the close-up shot of a black hand and a white hand holding the World Cup trophy aloft.