Invictus opens Friday throughout the Triangle

The saying goes, “Soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans; rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

The joke is recounted in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, and it carries an extra sting because his story concerns rugby in South Africa. During the years of apartheid, athletes were also segregated, with whites excelling at rugby and blacks gravitating to soccer. (It’s the latter sport that will be the occasion for South Africa’s turn in the world spotlight next summer as the host of the World Cup.)

This black-white sporting divide informs the film’s sublime opening scene: On a lush green field is a team of sporty white South African boys practicing rugby, while directly across a road, separated by a chicken-wire fence, is a group of impoverished black boys playing a pickup game of soccer on a bare dirt patch. The year is 1990, and down the highway travels a caravan carrying a newly freed Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), released after 27 years as a political prisoner. The blacks gather at the fence and chant “Mandela, Mandela,” while the white rugby coach instructs his players to remember the occasion as the day South Africa went to the dogs.

A whirlwind montage takes us through Mandela’s improbable election as South Africa’s president in 1994. Among the many questions Mandela faced in governing the new South Africa was what to do about the national rugby team, nicknamed the Springboks and a popular vestige of white rule. Mandela wisely eschews calls for wholesale reform to the teamincluding a new name and colorsby recognizing that such an act would needlessly alienate an already anxious white minority that distrusted their new government but still controlled many of its institutions.

The following year, South Africa was set to host the Rugby World Cup, but even with the home advantage South Africa was a long shot to win. The team’s subsequent unifying march through the tournament forms the backdrop for Eastwood’s film, which was adapted from author John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. The film’s title is borrowed from William Ernest Henley’s short poem, which inspired Mandela during his years in prison. Likewise, Mandela extends the poem’s concluding stanza”I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”to motivate the Springboks’ politically ambivalent captain, Francois Pienaar (a suitable Matt Damon), into believing their team could not only win the Cup but unite a new “rainbow nation” in the process.

Terms often used to describe Eastwood’s directorial style”traditional,” “classical,” “understated”are code words that euphemize basic, uncreative and stale filmmaking. Eastwood’s success has more to do with his ear for a good yarn, including even disappointments like his dual World War II epics, Mystic River, Changeling and others. Invictus is no exception, and during the film’s first half, Eastwood’s unobtrusive method actually complements the storyline. The straightforward presentation of the principal narrative leaves room to introduce several potentially interesting subplots, involving Mandela’s estrangement from his wife and daughter, tension within his mixed-race security detail and dismay among many Mandela staffers over the president’s preoccupation with the rugby team’s fate.

But, like a team lacking proper conditioning, Invictus runs out of steam midway through. Any further exploration of racial, political or cultural complexities falls by the wayside in favor of a standard sports-movie finale. The tournament forms the virtual entirety of the film’s second half, notwithstanding isolated detours like the team’s affecting visit to Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island.

Indeed, the climactic match against formidable New Zealand (nicknamed the “All-Blacks,” ironically) comprises nearly the final 20 minutes of the film. Eastwood’s staging consists of a merry-go-round of re-created game-play and incessant reaction shots of five or six groups watching or listening to the game across Pretoriaincluding Mandela, who is reduced to just another cheering fan. When Eastwood decides to ramp up the tension, his simplistic solution is to reduce everything to slow motion, including ticking clocks and those repetitive crowd reactions.

Eastwood’s main mistake, however, is that he ceases presenting Mandela’s use of the Springboks as a symbol for racial reconciliation and instead myopically holds up the president’s symbiotic relationship with the team as the principal instrument toward accomplishing that end. By film’s end, white cops are hoisting black youngsters atop their shoulders, rich Afrikaner housewives are hugging their black maids and white rugby hooligans are embracing former black rebels.

All’s well that ends well in South Africa, Eastwood would have us believe. It’s telling that this year’s most instructive film about crime, poverty and racial prejudice in South Africa is last summer’s District 9, not this well-intentioned but inert piece of Oscar bait.