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Despite the presence of Damon as Springboks captain Francois Pienaar — and no shortage of bone-crunching rugby action — Invictus is unmistakably told through Mandela's eyes, with keen attention to the skepticism his policies engendered on both sides of South Africa's racial divide (typified by an excellent scene in which the president reprimands his own party members for plotting to abolish the Springbok team colors and logo, seen by many South African blacks as symbols of the apartheid patriarchy). At the same time, Eastwood's film doesn't suffer from the bleeding-heart rush to canonization that pervaded several lesser, made-for-TV Mandela movies. Although it's far from a comprehensive biopic, Eastwood takes pains to show the distance between the public and private Mandela, a man who feels considerably more at ease pouring tea for a former enemy than communicating with his estranged wife and children. It is in precisely this gray zone that Freeman's performance grows large. He manages to play one of history's great men without losing sight of the fact that he is, as one of Mandela's bodyguards describes him in the film, "not a saint. He's a man, with a man's problems."
After a preview screening late last year of Gran Torino, a fan rushed up to Eastwood and enthusiastically exclaimed: "You've made the first movie of the Obama generation!" Eastwood starred as a racist Korean War vet who rallies to the defense of his embattled Hmong neighbors. Turning to the fan, the filmmaker gently replied that he had been born under Herbert Hoover.
But somewhere in that exchange lies a particular truth about Eastwood, whose recent films have seemed ineluctably of the moment, even as the director has turned toward the past as a way to explain the present. (Of his five most recent films, all except Gran Torino are period tales.) Far be it for this intrinsically classical, unpretentious filmmaker to tackle head-on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he might give us Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, a double-sided postcard of the "good" war, the young men who fought in it, and the atrocities wrought by each side.
Eastwood tends to hold his own political views close to the vest, and he's quick to pooh-pooh the parallels. "The material brought that to my attention, but I wasn't trying to sell any American politics in the thing," he says of Invictus when we speak by phone shortly before Thanksgiving. "However," he continues, "Obama is a charismatic young man, and he did talk about change and all this kind of stuff that sounded great. I mean, it sold the nation on him. Whether he's able to deliver the goods or not is another thing."
He then refers to a scene early in Invictus when Mandela, out for an early-morning walk on the first day of his presidency, sees an Afrikaans newspaper headline that asks: "He Can Win an Election But Can He Run a Country?" In the film, Mandela responds, "It is a valid question." On the phone, Eastwood says, "That's the same question we all probably have about any presidential candidate who wins an election. So far, Obama is having a rough time convincing everybody. Personally, I'm rooting for the guy. I didn't necessarily support him going in, but I'd like to see him succeed because I want the country to succeed. It would be masochistic to do otherwise."
Although there are those who will inevitably accuse Eastwood of gilding the lily, of telling one of the few optimistic stories to be plucked from a South Africa that remains rife with despair, the counterproof is right there in Invictus itself. For all the celebratory atmosphere of the World Cup Final, the movie ends not with the pomp and circumstance in Ellis Park Stadium or with the crowds of joyous revelers spilling into the Johannesburg streets but rather on the simple, quiet image of the president, seated in the back of his limousine, removing his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose.
"You see him as a lone figure in the car," Eastwood says. "You can tell he's tired. This is just one hurdle, and you get the feeling he's got a long way to go. You know, he was 75 when he took over as president, which is really old, even by today's standards" — curious words coming from a man who, six months shy of 80 himself, seems committed to a more feverish pace of work than ever.