For most Americans, watching Clint Eastwood's sports drama "Invictus" will be their first introduction to a pivotal moment in modern South African history. The political backdrop, however, might look uncannily familiar.
The year is 1995, and the nation's first black president, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), is struggling to unite a polarized country and restore its battered reputation abroad. He is a powerful speaker, but domestic crises are threatening to drown him out. Nevertheless, Mandela spots a public-relations opportunity in an unlikely arena, one that our current president often uses to advantage: sports.
The game is rugby, and the national team, the mostly white Springboks, stand as symbols of the apartheid era. When the Bokke lose a match (which is often), the nation's blacks quietly rejoice. Mandela's gambit: turn himself into a Bokke fan and unite the country behind one team. Of course, it would help if they won the World Cup.
Eastwood, a wildly uneven director (his resumé includes the flat-out masterpiece "Unforgiven," the lamebrained thriller "Blood Work" and just about everything in between), hits solid middle ground with "Invictus." He seems genuinely interested in South Africa's tricky cultural landscape and leans heavily on Anthony Peckham's thoughtful script (based on John Carlin's nonfiction book "Playing the Enemy"). Eastwood also makes the most of Freeman - isn't he kind of always Nelson Mandela? - though he sidelines Matt Damon as the Springboks' beefy captain, Francois Pienaar.
In the end, the film is more educational than engaging. The rules of rugby, by the way, remain a mystery.