Morgan Freeman, left, plays Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon is the captain of a South African rugby team in "Invictus." (Warner Bros.)
A work of flawed majesty, "Invictus" nonetheless has one of the most interesting storylines of the year and one of the greatest whip-up-the-energy sports finales in film history. It leaves you cheering, drained and inspired.
Most of that inspiration comes from South African leader Nelson Mandela -- and not because of rousing speeches, his time spent in prison or personal charisma.
"Invictus" is the story of how a political leader tried to heal his severely divided country rather than further his own political ambitions.
That Mandela turned to popular culture -- in this case sports -- to affect such healing shows great prescience and much understanding of the human soul, as well as a huge willingness to go against the tide of opinion. It was, clearly, a stroke of genius.
Director Clint Eastwood lays the story out slowly -- too slowly at times, but when he gets where he's going, he's going great guns.
We first see Mandela (played convincingly by Morgan Freeman) as he is taking office, the first elected black president of the long-racist country of South Africa. The economy is a mess, many blacks live in tin shack ghettos, but Mandela immediately grasps that his country cannot move forward until blacks and whites learn to respect one another as equals, forgive old grievances and work together.
Most politicians would immediately call for a fact-finding commission, followed by a legislative investigation that would then produce a 300-page report in four years that no one would read.
Mandela, instead, decided to back the country's rugby team.
South Africa already was set to host the world cup of rugby. Mandela figured it could become a unifying time for the nation if the somewhat weak national team could actually make it into the quarterfinals.
There was only one problem -- the rugby team was supported by whites; blacks hated it so much they'd show up to boo.
But Mandela invited the team's captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to tea and forged a bond. Then he made it obvious to the entire country that he was supporting the team, showing up at matches where the crowd was overwhelmingly white.
To be sure, this was not the end of racism or problems in South Africa. But it may have been one of the beginnings of an eventual end.
Eastwood tries his darndest to keep Mandela's halo from becoming blinding, making it clear that his private life is tragic even as his public life is a success. But it's hard to get around.
As are some of the seemingly trite but likely true stories of slow reconciliation -- the way Mandela's black and white bodyguards come together, the rugby teams' impromptu clinics in impoverished black neighborhoods. Chances are it happened, but it feels dramatically familiar.
The director isn't helped by some wooden dialogue in Anthony Peckham's script, adapted from the book by John Carlin. And some of the music choices here -- ouch!
But when Eastwood is finally on the charge in the film's great finale, he delivers in a way only a master director with a sense of scope can. You may not end up a fan of rugby, but you will be a fan of this rugby team.
In the end, "Invictus" is a sure crowd-pleaser with a wonderful message; nothing wrong with that.