“Rugby, however, is a hooligan’s game, played by gentlemen.” After his release from a 20-year prison sentence, Nelson Mandela (Freeman) is elected president of South Africa. In an attempt to shed the shadow of apartheid, he recruits the help of rugby team captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) to inspire his team to win the World Cup. Eastwood directs a compelling, if somewhat flawed retelling of one country’s struggle for unity through the language of sports.
As far as I’m concerned, Morgan Freeman is Nelson Mandela. I can’t imagine another actor portraying him as skillfully. His speech, his demeanor and evens his looks are all spot-on, and his presence is magnetic. Damon holds up well as the rugby team captain (and has definitely shed his post-Informant! pounds). Eastwood balances the politics of the era with the rugby action, never letting one overwhelm the other or resorting to sentimentality. The tightrope act Mandela must perform, and the faith he requires from his people is fascinating to watch. Cinematographer Tom Stern ably contrasts the upscale neighborhoods with the shanty towns of Johannesburg, and the score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is suitably grand. However, despite my interest in the political side of the movie, I felt a little let down by the sports side. This may be due to my unfamiliarity with the sport, but the matches in general, and the World Cup game in particular, left me a bit flat. They’re well-presented, but they didn’t grip me like I hoped they would. Having to compete with Morgan Freeman’s performance certainly didn’t help rugby’s case. Still, it’s definitely worth a watch.