Clint Eastwood follows up his racially charged Gran Torrino (2008) with a movie that is based on historical events that occurred shortly after Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa in 1994. Post apartheid South Africa was still deeply racially divided and Mandela had the idea that getting the entire country behind their Rugby team (The Springboks) would help unify it.
Problem is, for a movie that is supposed to be an inspiring story about an underdog sports team that overcomes enormous obstacles to win the World Cup, the movie feels very….uninspired. I can’t really point to anything that is inherently wrong with the film, but I never felt emotionally invested in the team, and that makes for one long, dull movie.
The acting in the movie is quite good. A buffed up, blond Matt Damon plays the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar. He’s honorable and likable, and when he is summoned by Mandela to have tea, he shows the proper respect toward the man.
His light skin and light hair represent the white minority (Afrikaners) that has held most of the power in South Africa. Damon aptly handles the South African accent and seems well suited to the role.
Mandela posits the idea that they can both use the team to unify the blacks and whites of the country. If the Springboks can start winning, everyone will become so excited about the team and the World Cup that they will cheer side by side and forget about decades of racial animosity. Francois admirably agrees to try, and motivates his team to start winning.
I know this is based on fact, but I had a hard time swallowing the fact that this rather dismal team miraculously starts winning after Mandela’s request. It seemed a little convenient.
Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela. Physically, he looks remarkably like Mandela. He is serviceable in the role, but I won’t be jumping on the Oscar bandwagon anytime soon. His accent was all over the place, and I found it distracting.
Some scenes he nails it, but in other scenes he has an unmistakable American accent. I did appreciate the warm humor that he injected into Mandela, though, and for the most part I enjoyed Freeman in the role.
There were a few things that really took me out of the film and may have contributed to my inability to connect with the team. The film is too long, and the pivotal rugby match at the climax of the movie is completely devoid of any tension. Since most people already know the outcome of the match, you would expect Eastwood to really ratchet up the action and suspense. He does the complete opposite.
We are treated to scene after scene of the two rugby teams grappling one another in a huddle, in punishing high definition slow motion. The players grunts and shouts are distorted, flicks of sweat jump off the players and fall to the ground for an eternity. I assure you, one shot like that would be sufficient.
I am puzzled as to why Eastwood thought this was the best way to approach the match. What should have been an exciting sequence took so long to unfold that I didn’t care what happened, as long as it was over quickly. I was about ready to jump out of my skin.
The soundtrack was also a low point. Rather than complement the movie, it seemed disjointed and clunky. Eastwood also manages to make the worst use of a song in movie that I have ever heard. When Mandela descends into a field in a helicopter to give the team a personal pep-talk, a song called “Colorblind” starts playing, complete with helpful lyrics, in case you have no idea what the story is about that you are watching. It is really, really, bad.
The politics behind the story is largely glossed over, as Eastwood prefers to use the character interactions to address the racial issues. The rugby team is mainly white, and the crowds cheering them on are largely black. Francois’s family has a black servant who finally gets recognized as a family member and gets to attend the matches side by side with her employers.
On the first day Mandela is in office, his (black) security detail learns that they are going to have to work side by side with the government’s (white) security men. There is lots of tension as the two groups internally bicker for control. But hey, rugby eventually makes it better.
A few moments I did find uplifting. As part of a campaign to change the national feelings toward the formally resented team, Francois takes his players to slums to teach poor black children how to play rugby. There is also a heavy-hitting emotional scene where the team visits the prison and the cell that Mandela occupied for 27 years for fighting apartheid. It is humbling.
I do think that die-hard sports fans, and especially rugby fans, will really like this movie. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped.