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Clint Eastwood's annual Oscar pitch has become something of a holiday tradition which, depending on one's tastes, is anticipated with either delight or dread. But Clint's latest directorial effort, Invictus, is clearly fashioned more as a crowd-pleaser than a critical darling. It's true shape and intent is, in fact, akin to that of a traditional underdog sports flick, albeit one in which the charismatic coach who stirs a rag-tag team to victory just happens to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Based on the true story of South Africa's improbable triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — an upset on par with the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviets, or Daniel Larusso's defeat of Johnny Lawrence in the All Valley Karate Championship — Invictus traces the unlikely bond formed between national team captain Francois Pionaar (Matt Damon) and his country's newly elected president, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), who eyed the tournament as an chance to bridge the icy chasm between whites and blacks in the volatile early days of the post-apartheid era.

Initially, of course, the team's chances appear meager, as do its prospects at gaining the support of South Africa's long-suffering blacks, who largely despise rugby as the sport of the colonizers, an ugly remnant of a bygone era. (The lone exception to their disdain is Chester Williams, the team's lone black player.) But Mandela, unwavering in his quiet conviction, presses forward, as does his earnest disciple, Pionaar. And by the time the Springboks (as the team's players are known) take to the pitch to battle New Zealand's vaunted All-Blacks in the World Cup championship, an entire nation stands behind them, cheering them on.

As are we. It's a conventional story arc, and while Eastwood can't avoid all of the cliches and overly-saccharine moments that so often characterize underdog sports flicks, he demonstrates enough restraint to keep things credible, and as Invictus speeds toward its rousing and triumphant finish, it's impossible not to get swept up in the soul-stirring action.

Much of the credit for that achievement is owed to Freeman, who is superb as the saintly Mandela, though the role doesn't necessarily require much range. He's the film's Mr. Miyagi, wise and perpetually serene as he dispenses priceless tidbits of fortune-cookie wisdom to everyone he encounters, treated with reverence by his co-stars and director alike. Those looking for a more in-depth, probing account of Mandela's complicated life might wish to look elsewhere. Invictus is not a biopic; it's an absorbing, jubilant tale about the healing power of sport. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.