Though Clint Eastwood’s film purports to tell how post-apartheid South Africa came to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, it is really the story of an image – prisoner turned president Nelson Mandela greeting captain François Pienaar before and after the final in the iconic Springbok jersey. It’s an extraordinarily potent visual: a symbol of how a divided nation cast off the shackles of its racist past and embraced the potential of a united future.
So fixated is Clint on doing that moment justice, however, that he may have taken his eye off the ball and missed other fruitful areas of dramatic enquiry. How did Chester Williams feel about being the sole black player in the Bok team, for example, or Joel Stransky about being the only Jew? Might screenwriter Anthony Peckham also have tackled the mysterious food poisoning that nobbled the All Blacks prior to the match, or the fact that Nelson’s dream of colour-blind harmony is far from being a reality in the crime-ridden present?
All could have added texture and tension to what is a fairly one-note story of triumph over adversity, a movie whose only real achievement is to enable Morgan Freeman to realise a long-held ambition to play Mandela. This he does with grace, gravitas and a sprinkling of wry humour that offsets the film’s tendency to treat Madiba as a living saint, or Matt Damon’s decision to play Pienaar’s encounters with him like a tongue-tied schoolboy called to the headmaster’s office.