Synopsis - [spoiler]The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match. - alfiehitchie, IMDB[/spoiler]
Where to start with this film exactly then? I have to admit that I went into the movie with a few preconceptions of how I was going to feel about it. I'd heard good reviews and I'd heard terrible reviews, and I was more prone to take the latter on board.
This is where you'd expect me to say I was pleasantly surprised and that the film turned out to be an inspiring piece of work, full of suspense and drama, with admirable performances from its stars, while drawing on an important political event. Well, you're wrong. Sort of, anyway.
It was neither a great film, or an awful one. It sat between the two extremes, and not necessarily comfortably plodding along neutrally at half-pace, but zig-zagging forward and backward between the excellent and the down-right terrible.
There are a couple of main points I feel I should tell you about this film. Firstly, this is a film about rugby. You can dress it up as a political and historical drama, but in the end, it is a sports film. Secondly (and I know I'm going to get a lot of stick for this), Freeman is terrible. There, I said it.
To go back to the first point, this film is unashamedly about rugby. While I'm sure director Clint Eastwood would insist rugby is simply a device used to show how the problems of history and a country's guilt can always be reconciled, there's no denying that the sport itself holds the main impetus of the narrative and film as a whole. The final match goes on for around half an hour of the film for Christ's sake!
Now I'm a massive rugby fan, and even though I was only eight at the time, I do remember the 1995 World Cup, and specifically the final, and therefore the way in which they created past events and the movie's attention to detail was very exciting for me. However, for anyone uninterested in the sport I can imagine the amount of screen time given to match sequences is simply far too long. As for the match sequences themselves, considering we are supposed to be watching the best teams in the world, the play looks incredibly sloppy. It looks almost like one of those bad video-recordings by a proud dad watching his 12-year-old son playing in Sunday league.
Though rugby holds the centre stage of the film, I couldn't help feeling it was all a little watered down for the masses, as if the film felt the need to explain every little detail of the game to its audience. Also, I couldn't help laugh when South African captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, in what was supposed to be an inspiring mid-match team-talk said "Forwards, you need to start scrumming!". WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? Some researcher somewhere obviously wasn't doing their job right.
So, to go back to Freeman. I know he's treated as a rather holier-than-thou, untouchable, King Midas of an actor, but I honestly thought this was the worst performance I've ever seen him give. Granted, he looks like Mandela. And maybe he acts like Mandela. But that's all I can see. I don't see Mandela. I see Morgan Freeman trying to be Mandela. I know it was Mandela's personal request to have Freeman to play him in the film (hell, I'd probably do the same, right after Brad Pitt), but in all honesty, I think it was a mistake to cast such a recognisable face as the President. Freeman's depiction of Mandela generally consisted of him shuffling around, looking morose, which really started to grate on me. I understand both Freeman and Damon spent a considerable amount of time with their characters' real-life counterparts, so perhaps Freeman was doing an accurate job, but it just didn't work on screen for me. Freeman also brought a childlike innocence or naïvety to Mandela, which instead of appearing charming and peaceful, made the President appear more stupid and vulnerable.
I know Mandela is a political legend, and an icon for a generation. His story definitely deserves telling too. However, if Freeman's representation of him is accurate, then maybe his personality just wasn't made for the screen.
As for Damon, he was comparatively brilliant next to Freeman. I'll admit, I like Matt Damon anyway, and while it wasn't one of his best performances he didn't completely disgrace himself. His accent was passable and he was fairly believable as the Springbok captain. However, as I said for Freeman, perhaps it would have been better to see an unknown face playing such an icon, as it was rather amusing watching Jason Bourne (and Will Hunting for that matter) running around a rugby pitch.
Aside from Freeman's performance, there was another huge problem for me in this movie, and that was that the first two hours were a complete snore-fest. It's a long film at the best of times, but when the action doesn't start picking up until after the two hour mark, time becomes a real problem. The drama only actually starts picking up as South Africa begin approaching the World Cup final, and like I've said before, all the action is rugby-based.
I'll admit though, I really did enjoy the last half hour. The game footage really picked up pace and I found myself watching the match as if it was a real game. The only problem for me was that I knew the outcome, down to the drop-goal that secures the match. This is what the whole film hangs on, and when creating a historical drama such as this, you really need something else to build suspense other than the factual events themselves.
I'm still really undecided about this one to be honest. I loved taking a trip down memory lane, seeing familiar faces like Pienaar, Williams, Stransky and Lomu, but Freeman's performance and the first two thirds of the film really hold it back. Obviously it's very Hollywood and over-produced (what else would you expect with Eastwood at the helm?), but I can't really use that as the overriding basis for criticism. That said, try not to cringe too much when the song Colorblind is played over a scene of Mandela majestically arriving at the Springboks' training ground by helicopter.
All in all, go and see it if you enjoy rugby and don't mind a big-budget Hollywood cheese-fest. If you're after a realistic and inspiration tale of political struggle, maybe give this one a miss.