First Night: Invictus

Sporting drama that tackles prejudice

The prospect of a film about Nelson Mandela directed by Clint Eastwood might strike dread into the hearts of many fearing an earnest and over-reverent biopic, but Invictus is instead a surprisingly entertaining sports movie which for the most part follows the conventions of the genre.

Eastwood may have become a one-man movie factory, but his expertise in story structure and editing for maximum effect almost always delivers a considerable emotional impact. Invictus is also perhaps one of the most effective films about the end of apartheid in that the shadow of prejudice and social divide lingers over every frame. Mandela's own 30-year imprisonment is touched upon explicitly, but Eastwood knows that too much didacticism will kill the film so he doesn't dwell on it.

And while obviously steeped in nobility, Mandela, as played by the actor the premier always wanted to portray him – Morgan Freeman – is a playful, strategic man prepared to break ranks with his own and side with the whites on the issue of rugby. He's also alone, estranged from his wife and his family and surrounded by security teams at all times. It's hardly the picture we might have expected. Freeman, boasting an apparently flawless accent, has never been better. And Matt Damon, his hair dyed blond, his frame beefed up for the part of Francois Pienaar, is also compelling as the dedicated team captain who apparently hasn't given Mandela's predicament much thought before but who develops a personal rapport with the man.

The film also spends time showing us Mandela's staff – his chief of staff Brenda Mazibuko (played by Adjoa Andoh) and his head of security Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge), who both express bewilderment as his enthusiasm for integrating whites into the new administration.

This being a big Hollywood sports movie, however, the real focus is on the final itself, a match in which the Springboks devoted a large part of their energies to stopping Jonah Lomu. The finale, which lasts about 40 minutes, features real rugby players in the roles of the Springboks and All-Blacks including a convincing Lomu lookalike. Although the match itself wasn't the best rugby ever seen on the world stage, it's an epic battle which Eastwood turns into a classically rousing climax.

Everybody who works with Eastwood knows that he is a fast film-maker. Sometimes his speed shows and many of the interior scenes look like a cheap BBC drama. But he will win over many a cynic with the match itself which is shot and edited with all the manipulative tricks he can muster. When Pienaar is handed the World Cup by Mandela, Invictus will make grown men cry.