THE ONLY THING that's harder for an American to understand than a South African accent is the rules of rugby. It seems to be kind of like football, only with dorkier uniforms, lateral passing instead of forward passing, and plenty of big, chummy, homoerotic scrums. In Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the 1995 Rugby World Cup is given the task of drawing together a newly desegregated South Africa—it's not quite the equivalent of Nazis and Jews sorting out their differences with a game of hopscotch, but one can't help wonder if perhaps this particular sporting match has acquired a tad more significance than it can bear.
New South African President Nelson Mandela doesn't think so. Morgan Freeman plays him in a role that his freckles have been looking forward to for decades; to his credit, the man of 1,000 voiceovers fully inhabits his part with stiff-limbed authority. Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team the Springboks. Damon's fine too, albeit in a part that doesn't require him to do much besides mumble with an Afrikaans accent, which sounds a lot like your very untalented friend butchering an Australian accent after a few drinks.
So a rugby game rehabilitates a formerly race-torn nation—it's a weird, audacious tale for a quintessentially American director like Eastwood to pull off. He keeps the early part of Invictus somber and muted, with Mandela attempting to reverse the perception many black South Africans have of rugby: that it's a white man's game, a lingering emblem of apartheid. Eastwood pulls out the stops for the championship match, though, with the last 20 minutes of the film shot almost entirely in slow motion, even as we frequently cut away from the action to a series of minor, forgettable characters watching the game on TV.
Invictus' story is a weighty and problematic one, not one that's well suited to cinema's dramatic conventions. Eastwood's minor strokes work best: the caution of Mandela's security detail, or Pienaar's mother cheering alongside her black maid, or the black boy who nervously skulks around a police car trying to hear the game on the radio. But Invictus keeps Mandela and Pienaar at arm's length—these are not characters, they are icons, and it's not a rugby match, it's a country coming together. Still, it's hard not to find something uplifting here, or to keep from wishing we really could solve immense sociological problems by tossing a ball around.