Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela
Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar
Tony Kgoroge as Jason Tshabalala
Patrick Mofokeng as Linga Moonsamy
Matt Stern as Hendrick Booyens
Julien Lews Jones as Etienne Feyder
Adjoa Andoh as Brenda Mazibuko
Marguerite Wheatley as Nerine
Leleti Khumalo as Mary
Patrick Lyster as Mr. Pienaar
Penny Downie as Mrs. Pinnear
Sibongile Nojila as Eunice
Bonnie Henna as Zindzi
Shakes Myeko as Minister of Sport
Louis Minnaar

You’ve usually only got two choices with a sports film: the plucky athlete/team rises to overcome their obstacles and defeat their (usually vain or arrogant) opponents, or they don’t but learn something important about themselves anyway.

It might be interesting for some filmmaker to follow the villains on the way to their inevitable win, but until someone makes that film we’ll spend some time with Clint Eastwood’s much more traditional “Invictus.”

Don’t let the unusual title throw you, “Invictus” is every inch a standard sports film. But, unlike many other similar films over the years it has some self-knowledge and that makes quite a bit of difference. At the very least it realizes that it has a lot more to gain being about a character how they affect, and are affected by, whatever the films chosen activity is.

The sport in question this time around is rugby, but it doesn’t really matter, because “Invictus” isn’t about the game. It’s about Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and whether or not there are some divides too great to ever be healed.

Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, and Mandela’s election to the country’s presidency, he indeed faced a tremendous divide. Before he even takes the oath of office, members of the country’s white minority are already predicting the end of everything they’ve known. And they’re not entirely wrong, as many of the country’s new black majority plan as their first act of business to remove as many aspects of the previous regime, and their connections to its oppressiveness, as they can. From the national flag to the name of the national rugby team.

It’s tinderbox of ill feeling and Mandela understands right away it must be gotten over; the country must finally become a whole country undivided by law or recrimination, if it’s to have any future. And South America’s entry into the rugby World Cup may be just the key to making that happen.

It’s cliché to say, but Freeman probably was born to play Mandela. The man practically has Quiet Dignity under copyright. More importantly, he and the filmmakers understand that the real core of the story is Mandela the man, not Mandela the symbol. At no point does Freeman’s Mandela come across as less than a human being. A human being with a tremendous force of will that will drag everything–his country, his employees, his enemies, even his own aging body–inexorably to his goal, but a human being nonetheless.

He’s got his faults, including an ex-wife and children he hardly ever sees, sacrificed on the altar of the public good, but faults tend to highlight a person’s strengths in a way that no perfect archetype could manage.

Freeman is so good everyone else, including Damon as the captain of the national rugby team, pales in comparison around him. It doesn’t help that many of them are brief sketches of men as well: Francois’ (Damon) bigoted parents and quiet made, the dueling security professionals including some of the men who used to hold Mandela’s ANC down as a terrorist group, uncertain ministers who don’t understand Mandela’s refusal to do what they expect. There are more than a few instances that could have been rethought, particularly a visit by the team to the prison on Robben Island where Mandela spent so much of his life that is textbook ham-handedness.

But if that’s the worst “Invictus” has to offer, it’s doing okay. Is it schmaltzy? A little. Is it good anyway? Yes. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel but it understands what it is and that the best place to put its focus is not the rugby field. It could be better, it’s a little too concerned with being inspiring with a capital I, but any film that actually turns an icon into a person is heading in the right direction.