Clint Eastwood does a film where Morgan Freeman stars as Nelson Mandela, and, instead of being about the man arrested for treason who spent nearly 30 years in prison but who went on to become president of South Africa, the movie is more about people watching rugby.
It's so unlike Eastwood to do a feel-good, sports film. Eastwood is known more for doing gritty and depressing dramas. Eastwood applies the same aesthetic as those dramas but the tone here is lighter and more inspirational.
Eastwood starts in February 1990 on the day Mandela is released from prison and continues onto the 1995 World Cup. As in Forrest Gump, Freeman is inserted or Photoshopped into archival footage, leading up to Mandela's election.
From the moment that Mandela walks into his office as President, we're supposed to be aware of his history as well as the history of apartheid. That history is all just racism. White people and black people were segregated and at odds for years.
Dealing with the aftermath of apartheid is Mandela's burden, but he can't single-handedly change the hearts and minds of the 43 million people in his country. He smiles at rugby games but people still throw things at him.
He starts by forcing blacks and whites together in his office. His security, which were all black men, suddenly have to deal with a bunch of whites, assigned as bodyguards.
Seeing both colors in his administration isn't enough, however. Mandela realizes that he needs a bigger symbol to rally the people of South Africa. When the blacks who control the National Sports Council want to put an end to the name and color of the rugby team, known as Springbok, Mandela sees a golden opportunity.
Mandela wants to use the Springbok team as a beacon of unity. He meets the Springbok's captain, a man named Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner played by Matt Damon. Mandela charms Pienaar into being that beacon.
From that point on, Eastwood paints by the numbers, making his film rather predictable and dull. Eastwood doesn't really go deep into anyone's lives.
Mandela swoops in on his helicopter in the middle of practice to personally shake the hands of all the rugby players. He memorizes their names and, one by one, he shakes their hands, addressing them by name. He only spends a second or so with each player, which is all the time the audience gets as well.
At the World Cup where the Springboks are facing New Zealand's rugby team, there is a crucial moment when Springbok #10 makes an amazing kick. It was at that moment where I wished I knew #10's name or even something more about him.
Mandela spent only a second with him, along with a line of other guys whom we only see briefly. I know that #10 was played by Scott Eastwood, the director's son, but nepotism apparently didn't grant him much screen time.
I was also fairly interested in the New Zealand team, specifically #11, Jonah Lomu. Lomu was the first true global superstar of rugby. Lomu was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. Yet, if Eastwood brushed superficially over the home team, I didn't expect him to give much more to the visiting team, and sure enough, that's what happened.
Besides his name, we learn nothing of Lomu. His size and athletic ability speak for themselves, but I would have loved to have seen more of Zak Feaunati, a former Rugby player and first-time actor who plays Lomu in the movie, but sadly Feaunati is merely a placeholder, as is even the players on the main team.
The only true deep moment is when Pienaar spends some time at the prison and in the same cell as Mandela stayed when he was in jail. It's there you feel the weight of what Mandela went through and the importance of what he wants to do with the Springboks.
Yet, that one scene isn't enough to balance the shirking of character development that Eastwood does for his main characters or even characters like Lomu about whom we'd love to know more. Eastwood spends more time with Mandela's bodyguards who are of no real importance, telling the story from their point of view.
Two Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.