The team had been, to many South Africans, a hated symbol of apartheid, cheered by the white Afrikaners but rooted against by the oppressed natives.

Mandela had learned in his years in prison that sports had the power to bring people together across political and color boundaries. When the newly empowered natives wanted to change the hated team's name and colors, Mandela argued against that, noting that in this case, the emotional concerns of the vanquished should outweigh those of the victor.

The film starts a bit slowly and awkwardly. It looks like a lower budget production than it is (the film was shot entirely on location in South Africa).

As the real life leader of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar, told the BBC in 1995, “no Hollywood scriptwriter could have written a better script.” And none did. The script is the weakest part of the film.

The dialog seems artificial and stilted in the early scenes. And yet, none of that matters. The real-life story itself is the star here, and kept me mesmerized throughout, and the experience was well worth the money and time, something I find increasingly hard to say about the majority of films these days.

Morgan Freeman portrays Mandela (as Mandela himself had once requested) with the grace and aplomb we have come to expect from this talented actor. Matt Damon plays the rugby team leader Piennar with intelligence and sensitivity.

One of the most moving and memorable moments in the film was when Piennar explored Mandela’s old prison cell and grounds, wondering how one who had been imprisoned by whites for so many years could be so forgiving of their transgressions as president.

Indeed, that’s what makes this film so powerful. Forgiveness is one of the most amazing powerful tools we have, and Mandela understood this and used it to great effect.

Where others would have rubbed their new power in the noses of their former oppressors, Mandela went out of his way to integrate his government, to create a “rainbow nation.”

At times I felt the script did a bit of a disservice to Mandela, in that it focused so much on the upcoming World Cup that it seemed Mandela cared about little else, which was not, of course, the case. Mandela made great strides in reducing crime, supporting fairer labor standards, and prosecuting fairly those who had deliberately set out to murder his fellow citizens.

Forgiveness was a powerful tool, but so was the law, and Mandela was willing to use both to heal his country.

But this is just a simple, two-hour movie telling a straightforward part of the story, and in that, the audience is well served. There are moments of humor, some surprisingly moving moments, and of course, plenty of opportunities to cheer.

I recently saw an exhibit of art featuring disabled athletes. One of them noted gratefully how she was only limited physically, and lamented how most people were limited mentally, not seeing all they were capable of, not believing in their own potential.

This film reminds us that we can all be so much greater than we think we are if we shed our too often self-imposed limits. And that is a wonderful gift to receive and share during this holiday season. 

This is a family-friendly, upbeat film. Take the young ones and lose yourself in a moment of hope.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era. She is also a movie buff.  

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