South Africa, May 1994. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) was released from prison 4 years ago, and has just been elected as the country’s president. Amidst a nation-wide racial clash, Mandela believes that the key to a united country could lie within the national rugby team, the Springboks, and their captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).
Mandela’s plan, it seems, is for the Springboks – a team so despised by the black population that they instinctively root for whoever is playing against them, and who hadn’t been doing terribly well before Mandela got involved – to win the Rugby World Cup in less than a year’s time, though experts believe they’ll get no further than the quarter finals at best. The Springboks, with only one black player and a uniform of apartheid’s green and gold, find themselves in a position where their president wants them to be cheered on by the entire mixed nation, so embark on a PR campaign involving playing and teaching rugby to the poor black kids from the slums of the country. Going in, I thought his plan would have been to create a team comprised of 50% blacks and whites, thereby creating animosity as to whether the players were recruited for their skill or the colour of their skin, but in effect his plan was… nothing. Other than some inspirational speeches, standard marketing techniques, a slightly more intense training regime and an admirable cause, the aim seems to be just to will the team to win. Much like Million Dollar Baby, I could have done with some more time spent on the reasons behind the success, not simply showing it.
The subplot involving Mandela’s begrudgingly mixed race security team being forced to work together, eventually bonding over the rugby matches, was well played if predictable, but ably showed the success of the president’s plans. I’d have liked more time spent on Mandela as a person, maybe depicting his rise from prisoner to presidential candidate in an extremely racist country, as opposed to skipping through it in an all-too-brief opening montage. The man behind the title is hinted at – his broken family, way with the ladies and fondness for afternoon tea – but such a prolific, historical figures surely deserves a full biopic that doesn’t spend half it’s time on the rugby field. But then Eastwood’s recent biopic, J. Edgar, has received largely negative reviews, so there could be a reason for why he didn’t do the same here.
The closest the film comes to spectacle is in the rugby matches, and I’m no sports fan. Every modicum of emotion that can be wrought from the game has been, but those unfamiliar with it’s intricacies (I’m only just out of this category) could believe it to be simply about mid-pitch wrestling matches and kicking a ball between two posts.
Morgan Freeman has been trying to play Mandela for years, eventually getting the project off the ground with his Million Dollar Baby/Unforgiven director Clint Eastwood. He does a great job with the accent and the performance, but his casting was such an obvious choice that it dullens the impact. There is no-one else that could have portrayed the character better, and its doubtful that were someone else casting the film they’d’ve asked anyone else. If Freeman weren’t involved, the project probably never would have gone anywhere, and perhaps that’s how it should have been. Damon is good too, and it shows the notoriety of Eastwood as a director that Damon, one of the most outright and capable leading men working in Hollywood today, is willing to take a supporting role just to work with him.
Some plot points are clearly superfluous – much attention is put on Chester, the Springbok’s only black player, injuring his hamstring so he is unable to play a couple of matches – and far too much time is spent on the less interesting sports aspects over the far more captivating figurehead at the heart of the story.
Choose life 5/10