Invictus (12A)

Mandela the Magnificent? Not on this evidence.

It is the fate of great men to become the subjects of mediocre movies. Even so, Nelson Mandela has been unluckier than most. First he was portrayed as a kind of Jiminy Cricket to one of his own prison guards in the deplorable Goodbye Bafana. Now, in Clint Eastwood's Invictus, he receives the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour cuddle. As if that were not grating enough, the film also has the misfortune to arrive immediately after BBC4's Mrs Mandela, in which Sophie Okonedo played the title role as a cross between Rosa Parks, Lady Macbeth and Hurricane Katrina. Next to that hearty dish, Invictus can only feel like Angel Delight.

Becoming the inspiration for poor-quality cinema is a small price to pay for leading an entire country out of savagery and injustice. But while it would be coronaries all round if a director as conservative as Eastwood touched on, say, Mandela's complacent presidential response to South Africa's Aids crisis, he still deserves to be shown as a complex individual.

Hagiography is a close relative of character assassination, and in presenting Mandela as a hazy cloud of beneficence, Eastwood and the screenwriter Anthony Peckham (adapting John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy) treat both him and the audience like fools. Even the casting of Morgan Freeman, spot-on though his shuffling walk may be, doubles as flattery. This, remember, is an actor who comes to the part of Mandela after twice playing God.

Invictus begins in 1994, with the new president taking office, and alights on a defining moment early in his tenure. The national rugby team, the Springboks, had historically been worshipped by white South Africans and disdained by most of the black population; Mandela recalls that the prisoners on Robben Island would cheer for anyone except the home side. Now he recognises the value in advancing the team's fortunes and enlists the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to this end. With the team's 1995 Rugby World Cup win would come rehabilitation (the anti-apartheid boycott had excluded the Springboks from the two preceding tournaments, though this isn't mentioned here) and a victory for integration.

If the film renders Mandela as a human air-freshener, then perhaps Pienaar gets off lightly in scarcely being rendered at all. Matt Damon has made a career out of giving vivid shape to characters who aren't quite there (in The Good Shepherd or the Bourne trilogy, among others) but even he is thwarted by a role that requires him only to master the rudiments of a South African accent, furrow his brow and remark on Mandela's magnificence.

It's a pity that so much of the film is devoted to these smiling blanks - Mandela and Pienaar - when there is promising material on the margins. The Pienaar family has a black housekeeper, who spritzes the plants while the rugby captain's father gripes about "the blacks getting all our jobs". The film hardly treats her any better. She gets one line and a surprise ticket to the World Cup final. But she is never a person - she's the help. There's also tension in the relationship between Mandela's black bodyguards and the white Special Branch officers assigned to work alongside them, but this is conveniently dispelled as the film goes into feel-good overdrive for the final act.

For a film about victory, there is a curious tang of defeat about Invictus. Faced with animating a narrative in which the outcome is predestined - the climax certain to feature a montage of rich and poor, black and white, huddling around television sets - Eastwood scarcely bothers to exert himself.

You can appreciate his problem. Early in the film, a van screeches up beside Mandela as he crosses a deserted street one dark dawn. Is he going to be shot at? Kidnapped? Even killed? The suspicion is that, had such a tragedy occurred, we would have heard about it by now. It would be on Wikipedia. But if Eastwood is hamstrung by facts, he didn't need to be quite so parsimonious with his interpretative skills.

Pienaar wonders how Mandela could spend 30 years in a cell yet forgive the people who put him there. It's no good looking to Invictus for the answer. If all you knew about Mandela was gleaned from this film, you would take him for scarcely more than a motivational speaker loaned out to ailing sports teams.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street