Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

Written by Anthony Peckham based on the Book by John Carlin

Nelson Mandela spent about 27 years in prison for sabotage of the things that were representative of Apartheid in South Africa.  When he was in prison, he became a symbol to the non-whites of the oppression they suffered at the hands of the South African ruling class.  In 1990, he was released.  By 1994, non-whites were allowed to vote and Mandela was elected the first black President of South Africa.  His journey in the cell over the quarter century was guided by the simple prose written above.  Going in angry at reality, he came out a pacifist, excited about possibilities.

The rest of the country went on an uneasy ride, though.  The whites of South Africa felt surrounded all of a sudden.  The blacks felt like stretching their wings after so many years having them clipped.  Throughout the country, though, there was working class.  No matter what goes on, they still have to show up every day.  That never seems to change.  This movie is about them.

3 professionals at the top of their craft

The Springbok Rugby team of 1994 was an unspectacular and under performing collection of all white players and one black.  While none of them were overtly racist, they felt the sting of the boos from the non-whites as they played, and that the whites only cheered for them did not help much.  Nelson Mandela, played expertly here by the great Morgan Freeman, saw one of their games and instead of seeing a need for an overhaul, he saw a chance to infuse desire into their hearts.  In a little more than a year’s time, South Africa was going to host the World Cup of Rugby.  He reaches in, just at the moment popular sentiment is calling for the leadership of the team and the team itself to be canned, and connects with team captain François Pienaar (played an expert accent and with as much enthusiasm as Damon can muster).  Their common bond helps to unite the team with their country, and inspires one of the more improbable World Cup upsets in the modern era.

The success of this movie lies in restraint: that of director Eastwood and Oscar-Nominated lead Morgan Freeman.  This story has melodrama possibilities coming out the gills.  If it were any other duo, I think there would have been syrup dripping off the screen.  Freeman’s dead on impersonation of the activist icon Mandela is so easily played, it feels as though their souls were intertwined.

Freeman and Damon show respect for their subjects and their craft


Eastwood, who as a director has become a master of understatement, excels here when he concentrates on the working class.  You are allowed to see from their faces that there are not any obvious villains here.  The only problem is the situation they all find themselves in.

The security detail plays as an excellent microcosm of this situation.  Both the whites and the non-whites want to protect their president.  They must face their fears and realize their goals, their hearts and their patriotic pride comes from the same place.  Eastwood does not over-dramaticize here.  Rather, he lets it play out like it would in a civilized society, between professionals.  Conflict is rarely blown out of proportion by the working class, even in tense times like these.  Eastwood is fully cognizant of this, and comfortable that the subject will give its own drama, without throwing in the occasional false crisis.

Damon reaches another level of his ability here.  His skill has always been above average (especially since getting away from Affleck), but here, he is less Matt Damon, than a white boy in a newly mixed society facing uncertain times.  Pienaar’s father starts off saying what one would expect their father to say at the beginning of the film, describing Mandela as a terrorist.  Damon’s Pienaar is nonplussed, given his obsession to push his team to win.  Without using words, one can tell Pienaar knows where his father is coming is not so much a place of hate, but one of fear in uncertainty.  Damon moves his character forward, certain that his family will come along when the time arrives.  And that they do.  Damon’s Oscar-Nominated performance here is the best and most graceful of his career, topping even the Bourne series and the Talented Mr. Ripley.

I can’t help but think of the difference between Eastwood and other more celebrated, but essentially worse directors when I watch one of his films.  Spielberg would have created a dripping mess of goo out of this story, letting the camera linger just a little too long on scenes, like the celebration between the little boy and the policemen after the game.  Damon would have had long-winded speeches, and Freeman’s Mandela would have cured racism entirely.  Eastwood knows better than to raise false claims in his movies.  Life is difficult, even in bittersweet success, outside of Eden.

(**** out of *****)

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