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Invictus goes down in defeat 

Rating: **

Clearly, there's no shortage of stories to relate about Nelson Mandela. Why, then, did Clint Eastwood choose one that forces the celebrated leader to go MIA in his own saga?

Second only to the upcoming Nine as the biggest disappointment of the holiday season, Invictus (** out of four) represents a rare misstep for the iconic filmmaker, who's been on a tear lately with the stellar likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and last year's Gran Torino. But Invictus, sad to say, finds the prolific 79-year-old merely coasting for more Oscar gold, tackling the sort of safe, sanitized fare that used to attract stodgy filmmakers like Richard Attenborough on a regular basis. Simplifying complicated South African issues to the level of a Berenstain Bears storybook, the movie focuses on the initial years of the presidency of Mandela (portrayed by Morgan Freeman in a competent if uninvolving performance), who emerged from decades in prison bent not on revenge against the whites who oppressed him but instead seeking unity in this post-apartheid South Africa. Finding resistance from both sides of the racial divide, the saintly leader decides to use the sport of rugby as Ground Zero for solidarity, working with the captain (a functional Matt Damon) of the country's mostly white team to build national pride by taking them all the way to the 1995 World Cup Championship game.

The first half of Invictus is the superior portion, since Mandela is front and center for most of the running time: The politics may be spotty and the Obama comparisons may or may not be intentional ("One day on the job and they're already attacking him!" bellows one supporter), but at least some human dynamics are at play. Unfortunately, the second part devolves into a typical sports drama focusing on an underdog team battling its way through incredible odds, and this narrative direction forces Mandela to remain on the sidelines of the movie itself. Relegated to the role of cheerleader -- and afforded only an occasional camera shot showing him beaming with pleasure -- Nelson Mandela may have won an election but here suffers a defeat at the hands of formula filmmaking.

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