I went into this movie knowing almost nothing about rugby. I left this movie still knowing almost nothing about rugby, but that’s okay, since several of the characters don’t know much about rugby, either. Apparently, the game requires dressing in a soccer uniform, going out onto a reasonable facsimile of a North American football field, and acting like you’re involved in a horrible, no holds barred brawl. There must be rules, because occasionally the referee calls a foul, but I’m still not sure how the referees could tell when a fight started. The fighting looked exactly like the playing. To paraphrase an old hockey joke, I went to the fights and a rugby match broke out.
But it’s also a movie about politics, and I know even less about them, though the movie does a good job setting the scene. In the early to mid-90’s, when this movie takes place, Nelson Mandela (here played by Morgan Freeman of The Bucket List, who does an excellent job of looking like the former president) was trying to unite South Africa after it had been torn apart by Apartheid. The Afrikaners, descendents of the northern Europeans who settled in South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, call Mandela and his followers terrorists. The black Africans, only newly restored to citizenship in their own country, call the Afrikaners oppressors — and probably worse, though in the movie, they say it in something other than English, and no subtitles are provided, so I can’t be sure.
After 27 years in a tiny little cell with a blanket on the floor for a bed, Mandela is now elected president of a country that he freely admits is in a terrible state. Ostracized by other nations, with two-thirds of the population glaring angrily at the remaining third and possibly wishing they could still shoot at each other like in the good old days, Mandela has his work cut out for him. No one wants to forgive or forget, and when he urges people to do so, they usually look at him like they’re wondering exactly how the impeachment process works in South Africa.
Then he hits on an idea. It’s offbeat, risky, and makes his long-suffering personal assistant Brenda (Adjoa Andoh, who played Francine Jones, Martha Jones’ mother, in the new Doctor Who series) wish that sports had never been invented. Yes, he decides to use rubgy, of all things, to unite his shattered country. It still seems strange to me, to use a sport that advocates grievous bodily harm as a path towards peace, but then, I suppose in this case, it was advocating grievous bodliy harm against people from other countries, so maybe that’s okay, then. Sort of.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon discover they’ve worn the same outfit to the World Cup Match.

Anyway, reasoning that if he can make everyone cheer for the country’s rugby team, the Springboks (named after a type of South African antelope), then everyone will be much less likely to want to shoot each other. It does seem a little far-fetched, so I understand why Brenda gets so frustrated over her boss’ obsession with the team; but having been born and raised within twenty miles of Lambeau Field, the very heart of Green Bay Packers territory, I can see that Mandela has a valid point. You might not like the guy sitting next to you — you might never speak to this person in the normal course of events — but if you suddenly realize that this person next to you is also cheering himself hoarse over that great play, it’s really hard to dislike that person.
There are just a few little problems with this plan. First, the team isn’t very good. In fact, they’re actually kind of awful. Second, most blacks hate the sight of the (all-white, except for one guy) team, seeing them, their green and gold uniforms, and even their name as symbols of oppression.
Enter Matt Damon, of the The Bourne Ultimatum. (Finally, right?) He plays Francois Pinaar, captain of the team, and he seems to think the team has potential; they’re just not organized, angry, or maybe experienced enough. Or something. He tries to inspire them by making toasts and encouraging the throwing of beer cans, but something’s still not clicking.
Then he gets invited to tea with the president, who tells the hapless rugby player that he’d really like it if he and his team could go win the World Cup for South Africa, please, thanks. And that’s what the rest of the movie is about.
There’s the obligatory dramatic highlights of the World Cup games, of course, and by the end of the film, I was really, really tired of watching these men beat each other up. But then, I don’t like rugby. I don’t even like football much, and that’s practically sacreligious when you’re from where I’m from. Anyway, it really started dragging for me at the end, so be warned.
Basically, since any attempt to deal with the whole of the country at that time would take at least ten movies, Clint Eastwood (now apparently happy to direct instead of act for a while) wisely decides to focus on just the rugby aspect of the struggles so it isn’t too overwhelming. Even so, it’s 134 minutes long, so get a comfy seat. But it’s worth watching even if you’re not a rugby fan, and I’m not just saying that because Matt Damon’s in it. Promise.
Four idols for this one. It’s a little obvious sometimes, clearly working to make the audience weepy, and that didn’t quite feel right. And I’m pretty sure Kyle Eastwood wouldn’t be getting all these music jobs in Hollywood if his dad wasn’t hiring him — it’s okay music, but it should be fantastic. But otherwise it’s a good film. The minor characters all get their chance to shine — keep an eye on the president’s security detail, for instance, now suddenly an integrated security detail, and all the adjustments they have to make. And remember: the first rule of rubgy is to wait until the ref isn’t looking before you punch the other guy.