Freeman is a revelation as Mandela. Inspirational sports movies have a tendency to be full of overwrought dialogue and sappy, swelling music accompanying the athletic competition. Eastwood's genius is that even though there's enough of both here (including dramatic recitations of the titular poem, which means "unconquered"), the film never feels bogged down by sentimentality. It's difficult to imagine any other actor playing the iconic leader, and Freeman doesn't disappoint. With every nod, walk, and smile, Freeman fully transforms into the Nobel Peace Prize winner -- his lovingly executed performance is reason enough to see this historically accurate film. Damon packed on muscle to play the barrel-chested Francois, although he couldn't do anything to approach the real Pienaar's considerable height. Most American audiences won't know whether Damon nailed the South African accent, but at least it stays consistent, as do his rugby moves, for which Damon trained extensively.
There's not much scene-stealing from Damon; he seems content to let Freeman and the game of rugby set the tone. One particularly memorable scene shows how the players react to Francois handing out the words to the new South African anthem (one of them calls it a "terrorist song," and several crumple up the paper). And despite the movie's serious themes, there's a surprising amount of humor, usually in the form of Mandela's integrated personal security force -- the black guards don't even know how to follow rugby: "What just happened?" one asks, "They scored!" says a white guard. The black and white guards are wary of each other at first, but by the end of the movie, they're all playing rugby and picking on each other. No doubt it took more than rugby to overcome the deep fissures caused by apartheid in South Africa (if they've been overcome at all), but in this movie, love of rugby and of a new nation go beautifully hand in hand.