It seems strange that in his twilight years, Clint Eastwood has made some of the most challenging and even shocking films of his career. Whether it's taking on the uncomfortable subject matter of Mystic River and ringing star performances out of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon or playing light with his own screen image to portray the gnarled racist Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, Eastwood has shown no inclination to slip out the back door gracefully. It's even more surprising then that given the canvass of a new-born South Africa and all its attendant racial and social tensions, he has made his gentlest and safest film in years, and yet the most disappointing.
After a planned biopic of Nelson Mandela, based on his autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom, failed to materialise, actor Morgan Freeman and his producing partner Lori McCreary turned to the story of South Africa's victory in the 1995 World Cup in a bid to bring Mandela to the screen. With Eastwood and writer Anthony Peckham on board, they saw the clear potential in setting a film just one year after the first post-apartheid election which took Mandela and his African National Congress party to power.
In the film's opening shot, Eastwood shows two separate playing fields. On one, two teams of black children play football on a dirt pitch. Across the road, in a smart, well-attended training ground, a group of privileged white children are coached in rugby. It's less than subtle, but it quickly establishes the antipathy amongst South Africa's black population to rugby and the Springbok team themselves, who represent the ruling white classes of the apartheid years. In a TV interview later in the film, Mandela (played of course by Freeman) is forced to admit that during his prison years, he would cheer on whichever country the Springboks were playing.
The main drive then, of the first half of the film, is Mandela's realisation that this team, one he actively hated himself, has the symbolic power to actually be a unifying factor in the birth of his new country, a bridge between two divided races. His decision to allow the Springboks to keep their name and their shirt cuts against the wishes of his political base who want to see the team rebranded to wipe away any remnants of the apartheid years and it's in this portion that the film is most effective, vividly demonstrating the difficult and lonely place Mandela is in, treading a path which no South African politician has ever had to go down.
From there, he forges a friendship with the Springbok's captain, Francois Pienaar, competently played by Matt Damon but perhaps lacking in enough charisma as a character to let the actor truly shine. Mandela realises that South Africa must win the World Cup on their home turf to truly fuse the country together and from there, his interest in rugby grows exponentially.
It's a shame then that the film shys away from the political dimension of the story in the second half to rely on some of the standard tropes of the sports movie. When Mandela is shown in political mode from then on in, it is merely for comic effect, to show him neglecting his duties to obsess over the team.
A bigger problem though is that there is never a sense of the future of a country being at stake. Eastwood fails to explore the history which took South Africa to that point, perhaps out of necessity, but as a result, the all-important final against New Zealand doesn't seem all that important. Along the way, to explain the intricacies of the tournament, the screenplay also falls back on some really clunky dialogue and even the scenes between Freeman and Damon don't have the weight that the circumstances merit.
It's really a take-the-kids, Sunday afternoon film, not that there is anything wrong with that. It ticks all the right boxes and is made with the polished sheen and unerring eye of any Eastwood film and is filled with enough humour to satisfy most audiences. It's just that considering the subject matter, there is a faint feeling of an opportunity missed.