Even at the age of 79, Clint Eastwood is a safe pair of hands to tell the story of how Nelson Mandela united post-apartheid South Africa behind the nation’s rugby team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Safe, but not exciting. Eastwood doesn’t fumble the ball, but his film lacks the turn of speed that might have made Invictus a real triumph.
Yet it’s a rousing tale all the same, and it’s impossible to watch without being moved by the way that Mandela – superbly played by Morgan Freeman – coaxed, cajoled and inspired his country towards reconciliation.
In his first year as president, Mandela was faced with a near impossible task: how to heal the wounds of apartheid and forge a new rainbow nation. That he chose to unite the country behind the green and gold colours of the Springboks seemed crazy. Rugby was the white man’s sport, and the Springbok shirt a hated symbol of apartheid.
Yet Mandela had the shrewdness to realise that rugby was a way of enlisting the suspicious white minority to his project and the boldness to get the country’s black majority on side too. And, as the film shows, his instincts proved sound when the unfancied Springbok side (all white save for one black player) hit a winning streak at the Rugby World Cup.
Eastwood conveys all this clearly, but there are times when he seems to be trying to spoon-feed recent South African history to the audience. (Unexpectedly, he makes fewer concessions with the rugby itself.) Matt Damon isn’t an obvious choice (not South African, too short) to play Mandela’s unlikely ally, Springbok captain François Pienaar, but he acquits himself surprisingly well in the role – on and off the field. The same can’t be said, though, of several of the supporting cast, and there are some dodgy accents and even dodgier acting on display. Add Eastwood’s unsubtle direction and Invictus sometimes plods just when it should be fleet of foot.
On general release from 5th February.