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Invictus (12A)

These Boks have no spring

Sometimes, even cheering the right team isn't enough. Nobody of moderate sanity would deny that the story of Nelson Mandela's uniting a bitterly divided nation through his support of the South African rugby team at the 1995 World Cup is, in the word beloved of Hollywood film-makers, inspirational. And so what if Clint Eastwood has made a film for an audience that knows practically nothing about rugby? Its star, Morgan Freeman, has admitted that he doesn't really get the sport himself, so let's cut Invictus some slack on that score. Where the film does drop the ball is in its absolute refusal to portray Mandela as anything other than a modern secular saint. However much you admire the man himself, when there's nothing but sunlight behind him your eyes begin to hurt.

Eastwood is doing a bit of everything here. He's making a movie about sport, a movie about politics, a movie about race and a movie about a man who took a stand at the intersection of all three. It is sensational material, adapted by Anthony Peckham from the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, a former Independent journalist who covered Mandela's release from prison and his subsequent inauguration as President. In a short preamble from 1990, Mandela's motorcade drives him to liberty along a road that symbolises the country's divide. On one side, a group of shoeless black kids playing football in a dirt field roar on their hero; on the other, a sportsmaster supervising a group of white public school boys on a private rugby field says, in disgust, "Remember today, boys – when this country went to the dogs."

It is these deep scars that Mandela (Morgan Freeman) first sets about healing, first in his own office, where he insists upon allocating bodyguard duties to white Special Branch men as well as his old ANC comrades, and then at the sports ministry, where he revokes a plan to strip the Springboks rugby team – another old symbol of apartheid – of their nickname and their green-and-gold colours. "Reconciliation starts here," he argues, and somehow he gets his way. Cannily intuiting that South Africa's hosting of the rugby World Cup might be the glue to bond his fractured nation, he arranges a meeting with the Springboks' captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), and encourages him to take destiny by the scruff of the neck and win the trophy for his countrymen. "We need inspiration... we must all exceed our expectations," he tells him, and Pienaar duly takes on board the responsibility of making it happen.

Perhaps that is exactly how it happened. But the problem is not one of factual accuracy; it is one of dramatic credibility, stymied all the way through by the remorseless sanctification of its subject. Morgan Freeman, who's long been Hollywood's go-to guy for "hard-won integrity", does the voice, the wave, the presidential charisma, but he's swaddled in so much virtue and moral armour that you can barely see a human being underneath. It is not enough that he is blessed with superhuman courtesy, asking everyone from the maid to the bodyguard how their families are, and paying little compliments to a secretary on her new hairdo. He must also be the unimpeachable dispenser of justice and wisdom, the man who never raises his voice or ticks off an underling or shows even the smallest hint of irritation. The guy was running a country, for heaven's sake – he'd be allowed to lose his temper now and then.

Again, this might all be true of Mandela, but portraying it in a film doesn't necessarily promote enjoyment. I wonder if Eastwood was attracted to the idea of a political hero at a time when such figures have been conspicuously absent in his own country. It is hard to imagine a US President publicly declaring that his own salary is "too high" and donating a third of it to charity, as Mandela does here. It's hard to imagine any politician at all doing such a thing. What Invictus won't do is pay Mandela the honour of suspicion. At one point, a bodyguard incautiously asks after his family, and Mandela, separated from Winnie by now, looks pained. Then he recovers himself to say, "My family is 24 million people," a line which perhaps might not have played so well in front of his actual family. The bodyguard is then privately rebuked by his superior, who says of their boss: "He's not a saint, he's a man, with a man's problems." But the whole tenor of the movie contradicts that judgment. Matt Damon, blameless and bland, plays a kind of shadow apostle to his country's saviour, and takes his team-mates on a visit to the famous cell on Robben Island where Mandela was confined for 26 years. It's a moving moment, but the film as usual over-eggs it with a shot of Pienaar watching Mandela's ghost breaking rocks in the prison yard.

The last reel, which covers the Boks' triumphant progress to the final, is a dead loss: anyone who knows rugby will groan at the falseness of the game's reconstruction, and anyone who doesn't – eg all of America – will puzzle over a sport that seems to be a sweaty straining of muscle and sinew interrupted by fist-fights. The cutaways to the stadium crowd going nuts, and then to the bars and living-rooms of ordinary South Africans watching on TV, might be the most inert and boring Eastwood has ever filmed. They also remind you that sport is its own drama, with its own tempo and intricacy, and that what captured the national imagination at the time isn't easily duplicated within the cold climate of celluloid. You should be punching the air as South Africa win and Mandela is vindicated, but after your arm's been twisted for two hours and more it may not be up to the job.