Nelson Mandela, whatever your thoughts on this most famous of men, spent 24 years in a tiny cell only to re-emerge into the blinding South African (SA) sunlight, sweeping apartheid aside as he became the first democratically elected black President of SA.
Most people would quite rightly be bitter, vindictive, filled with rage and intent on exacting a terrible revenge on their persecutors.
Lets face it, most of us would.
Mandela of course pursued a different route. Realizing the only way forward was to forget and forgive, he forged the South African country that we now know. Beset with many problems but inexorably bound together, without the race war many predicted. There is no question that Mandela saved possibly hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost, in the seemingly inevitable race/civil war.
So, this is a movie directed by Clint Eastwood about Rugby?
In a way, yes but really about everything else that is not Rugby. Eastwood merely uses the Rugby World Cup of 1995 as a metaphor, much as Mandela did, for history that was being made around him.
Morgan Freeman plays Mandela, frankly on a casting short list of one and Matt Damon brings to life Francois Pienaar, the SA Rugby captain. Mandela seizing the opportunity to galvanize a nation behind the once hated representation of the pre-apartheid era, who were comprehensively shunned by the sporting world. The Springboks or Bok’s, resplendent in green and gold with only, at the time, one black player on the team.
The first half of the film is somewhat ponderous as it has a lot of ground to cover, to bring anyone not conversant with world events at the time, up to speed.
There is a well played scene where Damon is invited to tea with Mandela, who gently pours the tea and artfully leads the Rugby captain to a point where he not only believes he should but can, win the World cup.
Freeman plays Mandela very well, not just a caricature of a well known person and certainly captures his essence of gentle humanity. Mandela recognizing and talking to all those around him, black or white in a way that indicates that he clearly cares about them.
Sure, the movie does gloss over the “Winnie situation” but realistically it is difficult to see how this could have been covered in the running time. There is an acknowledgment of the divorce and that Mandela is a man, not a saint. After all, this is not a biopic, just a glimpse of the man at a pivotal time in history.
Damon does well, his accent has the ring of authenticity. The sport scenes, usually the downfall of any movie, are realistic in appearance. Clearly real rugby players are used and lookalikes employed for the key players, notably Jonah Lomu.
Filming in South Africa, especially with this cast, must have been difficult and challenging but the rewards of acting in the “real place” are there on the screen to see.
Not Eastwood’s best work but perhaps difficult to see how it could have been done better within a normal running time. There are obviously so many complex themes and stories necessarily boiled down into a movie made palatable for a multiplex audience.
Some characters appear to be played by non actors and they do stand out, especially in this company but overall this does not detract from what is essentially a great and ongoing story.
Let us all hope that the eventual and inevitable “post Mandela” era, remembers the principles and example Mandela demonstrated. Many lives may still yet hang in the balance if his eventual legacy and long shadow, is not sufficient to continue to bind SA together.
Not quite the Oscar baiting movie one might have hoped for but this remains a competent and at times affecting film, with the added benefit of a whistle stop tour of an important time and place in recent history.