Nelson Mandela overcame inhuman oppression in his 27-year journey from prison to the presidency of South Africa. The country’s 80-percent black population faced similar hardships at the hands of its minority white oppressors, even when Mandela took office.


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You wouldn’t really know this, though, from watching Clint Eastwood’s new film “Invictus.” An otherwise beautiful, well-acted and triumphant film, “Invictus” presents few obstacles to its belabored heroes in their march to real-life glory, which tempers the victory that Eastwood otherwise flawlessly presents.

The true story concerns the months preceding the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, played with stately grace by Morgan Freeman (“The Dark Knight”), has won the first presidential election since the dissolution of the racist apartheid regime. Rugby’s World Cup is less than a year away and the host nation’s team promises to disappoint. Mandela sees in the divisive Springboks rugby team — specifically, in the Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, “The Informant!”) — a chance to reconcile whites and blacks and take the first step to greater racial harmony.

Perhaps the lone but substantial fault of the film is the absence of opposition to that harmony. Pienaar’s father watches Mandela on television and curses the downfall of his once-pure nation, yet happily takes his black house servant to the stadium when Francois brings home an extra ticket. Mandela’s black bodyguards bristle when their request for more men yields a cold, all-white roster of agents. Still, as the film progresses, the two factions form a predictable and trite bond. Pienaar’s teammates blanch at the prospect of holding rugby clinics in shantytowns across the country, yet when they arrive, they smile and happily play with the black children.

Mandela’s onscreen obsession with the Springboks’ progress is but one of many aspects of “Invictus” that yield continued awe and respect for Eastwood’s mastery. The director of Oscar Best Motion Picture winners “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” would be excused under the tenets of suspending disbelief for presenting the entirety of Mandela’s presidency through rugby.

Instead, though, Mandela’s bodyguards find him collapsed from exhaustion in his driveway before his morning jog. He excuses himself from an economic lecture in Taiwan to check the score of a Springboks game. We see him in passing on a television screen delivering a speech to the United States Congress. Without wasting time, Eastwood encapsulates the breadth of Mandela’s duties. If nothing else, “Invictus” is a clinic on precision and editing.

That is, until the slow motion kicks in and refuses to go away. Whether it’s a boon to the drama and emotion of a scene or just a molasses-paced nuisance, it’s difficult to defend 10 continuous minutes of ultra-slow movement and muted sound. We get it, Clint. Big moment ahoy.

Among the traditional Eastwood qualities in “Invictus” is the overwhelming manliness of its rugby scenes. Though some games, like South Africa’s quarterfinal win over France in the rain and mud, could be more extensively shown, Eastwood thankfully eschews shaky, unfocused chaos for clean, sweeping imagery of the pitch. He is deft in his camera placement, often cramming the camera into the middle of a violent scrum for the ball without ever disorienting the viewer, making for many truly exciting moments. One would be remiss not to mention the scene immediately preceding the final match between South Africa and New Zealand, in which New Zealand’s All Blacks perform their famous tribal Haka. If you follow rugby to any degree, your jaw will drop at the awesomeness of seeing the Haka shot on film and performed on a big screen.

An important distinction is that “Invictus” is not a bad film, but merely an underwhelming one. If this film had anyone else’s name on it, we might celebrate it as the splendid introduction of a young and bold new filmmaker. But it isn’t — it’s simply another entrant into the catalogue of Clint Eastwood, one of the most talented pictorial craftsmen in the history of the medium. And since the lead actors happen to be Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, it would border on insulting to expect anything less than one of the finest films of the closing year. This is a film with more than a dozen Oscar nominations between its three principal engineers.

So you won’t find fault in the workmanship of “Invictus.” It’s a beautiful film with superb actors and a heroic story which, unbelievably, is also true. Instead, blame Eastwood, Damon and Freeman for being so good at their jobs that anything short of perfection leaves you with a sense of mild disappointment.

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