Once upon a time there was a controversial black president attempting to lead a nation still struggling with old racial divisions. When Nelson Mandela won South Africa's highest office, many Afrikaners feared turmoil and reprisals. Some of his supporters expected a stern payback for the nation's white minority after generations of apartheid. He kept both factions off-balance while aiming for the big score: a united nation making a clean break from its past.

Alongside his internal and international initiatives, Mandela sought a symbol all South Africans could rally around. He found it in the Springboks, the virtually all-white national rugby team. Their record was spotty, and the nation's blacks disdained the team as a holdover from the days of white minority rule. But if they could be prodded into the championship playoffs, they could be a unifying symbol of national pride.

Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" tells this tale in a sturdy, straightforward, agreeably square manner. It's a film of big themes played out on a grand scale, a story of races and generations making an effort to connect. The setting is unusual, but it's told in a style that's immediate and understandable, never opting for heroism at the expense of authenticity. Where others might imply, Eastwood has little concern for subtlety, at least concerning the big-picture issues. When needed, he has message songs, cheering crowds and Morgan Freeman reciting "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" to drive his point home.

As Mandela, Freeman gives a performance of triumphant intelligence. His presence is commanding yet modest and decent, the sensitive father figure incarnate. Whenever he encounters a foe, he speaks in a tranquil, hypnotic tone, gently breaking his opponent as if he were a beautiful horse. When he first strides into the presidential offices, his predecessor's staff greets him with cold reluctance. With a few conciliatory words he persuades them to stay on and do their best work for their country. He would rather convert an adversary than defeat him. This film should be required viewing for anyone who wants to run a government.

Matt Damon is convincing as the captain of the Springboks, a wary fellow who becomes ever more humane as the film moves along. He's here not to score a star turn but to serve the story with a couple of (impeccably accented) go-team speeches. His pivotal scene is one where he's virtually silent, a soul-searching visit to Mandela's old cell and rock quarry in Robben Island Prison, the crucible that transformed him from a hotheaded revolutionary to a disciplined pragmatist. With his blocky frame, Damon looks like he can hold his own in the bruising rugby scrimmages.

"Invictus" is one of Eastwood's most uplifting and inspirational films. It's a reminder that on the fields of sport and politics, being the coach is a lot more than diagramming plays. It's about leadership and helping people grow and getting individuals to work together. The film keeps returning to a keynote of optimism, but it's not facile. This is optimism of a carefully considered and convincingly argued kind, the sort that only a humanist who's spent a long life watching civilization betray its potential can honestly express.

"Invictus" has its flaws, to be sure. Mandela's warts are quickly passed over, and the rugby play could have a more urgent and elegant flow. But these are trifles. Anyone who is not moved by this film has something broken in his chest where his heart ought to be.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186