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‘Invictus’ Doesn’t Quite Conquer Goals

"Invictus" has lofty, noble goals, but doesn't quite achieve them.

Clint Eastwood's movie, in which the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seizes upon the national rugby team as a means of uniting his country, has stirring moments. And Freeman is fantastic. But Eastwood too often veers into trite territory, undercutting some of the story's power. An unlikely World Cup run may be a soothing balm on a nation's wounds, but it's not a cure-all, no matter how inspiring it may be.

The film begins with Mandela's release from prison, and follows through to his election as president of South Africa, after apartheid is finally abolished. These scenes are both stirring, as a reminder of Mandela's courage and perseverance, and horrifying as a reminder that it's been less than 20 years since apartheid ceased to exist. That knowledge will hover both directly and indirectly over the rest of the film, as it does Mandela's tenure as president.

Apartheid may be outlawed, but changing laws does not change men's hearts, certainly not immediately. That point is made when a motorcade carrying Mandela drives by on a street that separates two fields. On one, well-appointed white boys practice rugby. Across the road, black boys in rags play soccer. As Mandela drives by, they watch in awe. On the other side, the white coach tells a player that this day will be remembered as when the country went to the dogs.

That's powerful stuff, and "Invictus" could use more of it.

Meanwhile we see the national rugby team, known as the Springbok, suffer what would appear to be another in a string of humiliating losses. The team's captain, Francois Pienaar (an understated Matt Damon), is frustrated, naturally, and the team's chances in the 1995 rugby World Cup look dire.

But the Springbok is more than a rugby team. For black South Africans, it's a symbol of white oppression, and they want the team dismantled, the colors changed, the name changed.

Mandela won't hear of it. He sees opportunity where others see conflict; if everyone, black and white, can support these underdogs in the World Cup, then what can't they do together?

Of course, there's the not-inconsiderable detail of winning, or even fielding a decent team. Pienaar is surprised to get a phone call one day: The president wants to meet him.

Mandela's talk with Pienaar is inspirational; he talks to him about the poem that gives the film its name, and gave him strength in prison. The talk is also evidently magical. The team suddenly gets better. And not just a little better, but a lot.

The rugby footage is exciting, even if you know the outcome. And Freeman doesn't make Mandela out to be a saint (in case you miss the point, one of his bodyguards conveniently drives the point home), but a decent, fiercely intelligent man who has overcome unthinkable hardships. He isn't just wise. He's wise in the ways of politics, and that serves him well.

At times, though, the story is too pat. Yes, it's based on fact, but Eastwood must necessarily compress time, making it seem as if everything comes together too smoothly, too soon. Some of the elements work beautifully, as when a black boy outside the stadium tries to come up with reasons to hang around the police car filled with white cops listening to the game on the radio. Others -- bodyguards of different races who snipe at each other throughout but hug during the big match -- are too obvious.

"Invictus" is not a great movie, no matter how much you wish it might be.

But it is a good one, and in some ways an important one. History is often too fleeting, particularly in an age in which we are bombarded with so much information so often it's hard to keep track. You'll remember Freeman's performance, which is certainly notable. But you'll also recall the struggle and sacrifice of Mandela and blacks in South Africa, and that's far more valuable.

But this is a movie, not a history lesson. And it's on the movie front that it ultimately comes up short.

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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