Year in Film: Clint Eastwood Tackles Mandela, the Hereafter and Approaching 80
On a late March morning, the sun sits high in the Cape Town sky, illuminating the trapezoidal monolith of Table Mountain in the distance, while down by the city's busy waterfront, the players of South Africa's national rugby union team — the Springboks — go for a training run. Only the careful observer might notice that, on this particular morning, the team's signature green-and-gold uniforms aren't of the most recent design, and there's a familiar if incongruous figure standing off to one side, tall and slender in a golf shirt and chinos, watching the scene transpire on a small, handheld video monitor. After a moment, the figure looks up and almost imperceptibly signals his approval, not with the traditional "Cut! Print!" but rather a small nod of his head and a whispered "That was good. Let's move on."
It's the 24th day of filming on Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the 30th film he has directed in a career that now spans more than a half-century — and, as usual on an Eastwood set, if you hadn't been told they were shooting a major Hollywood movie here, you'd be none the wiser. No trailers and equipment trucks line the streets — they're parked at a "base camp" a few miles away — and by the time a small crowd of onlookers begins to form, Eastwood has gotten what he needs and is on his way to the next location. Of his storied speed and efficiency — the discipline of a veteran actor who knows that long stretches of waiting around can wear out a performer — Eastwood says it's simply a matter of trusting his instincts. "If you have five answers to choose from on a multiple-choice test, usually your first choice is the right answer," he tells me during a break between shots.
The pace at which Eastwood moves through a movie is the same one at which he greets life itself, as if mindful of the old adage that an idle mind is the devil's playground. In January 2009, on the eve of his 79th birthday and less than two months before starting the Invictus shoot, he was busy promoting Gran Torino, which became the highest-grossing film of his career as actor or director. When I showed up in South Africa a few months later, Eastwood was already several days ahead of the planned Invictus shooting schedule. Before postproduction wrapped earlier this fall, he was already shooting a new film on location in Paris and London. Keeping up with Clint Eastwood, I discover, can be an exhausting task for all but Eastwood himself.
New Times Year in Film
Based on journalist John Carlin's superb nonfiction book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Eastwood's film returns us to a moment in South Africa's recent past, when the country was taking its first steps as a free nation after 46 years of segregationist apartheid rule. It was a moment symbolized by the 1994 election of Mandela (who is played in Invictus by Morgan Freeman) and celebrated the world over. At home, however, there was much work to be done. As Carlin explains in his dense and deeply reported account, Mandela's election was the culmination of a decade-long series of secret negotiations between the future president, the reigning National Party government of F.W. de Klerk, and the leaders of the pro-black African National Congress, designed to bring an end to apartheid while forestalling the civil war that threatened to erupt between extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Still, as Mandela took office, there were those members of the former ruling class who suspected him of being a "terrorist" who wanted to "drive the white man into the sea." Similarly, certain Mandela supporters wished he would do exactly that.
"Don't address their brains, address their hearts" had long been Mandela's credo when it came to dealing with his jailers and political opponents. While incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison in the '80s, Mandela had boned up on the predominately Afrikaner pastime of rugby in order to work his patented charm offensive on one of the prison's senior officers — a strategy that resulted in Mandela getting a much-desired hot plate for his cell. Now, in a display of the uncanny prescience and insight into human nature that defined his political career, Mandela would again turn to the secular religion of sports as a way of unifying his nascent "Rainbow Nation." With the Rugby World Cup scheduled to be hosted by South Africa in little more than a year's time, he became convinced that the Springboks — who had been banned from international tournament play during the apartheid era — could win the World Cup and, with it, the hearts and minds of the country. The result was an intersection of athletics and politics as dramatic as Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, or the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the U.S.S.R. in 1980."
"He just had some instinct — almost like somebody touched him on the shoulder and said, 'This will work,'" says Eastwood with the awe that seems to creep into people's voices whenever Mandela is mentioned. "How the hell he figured that, I don't know."
By early August, barely two months after returning from South Africa, Eastwood and his longtime editor, Joel Cox (an Oscar winner for Unforgiven), have already finished a fine-cut assembly of Invictus, save for some 600 visual-effects shots that will be finessed before the film's December release. At the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, on the film scoring stage that bears Eastwood's name, a large orchestra is recording the Invictus score — a simple piano melody, plus some traditional African choral music and a couple of original songs, most of it written by Eastwood's son Kyle and his partner Michael Stevens. (Eastwood's 23-year-old son Scott plays a Springbok in the film.) Toward the back of the stage, the senior Eastwood gives occasional notes on the placement of a cue but mostly nods his approval as sound and image come together before his eyes.
Already, there is much discussion about Eastwood's next movie, Hereafter, which at the time he says he expects to begin shooting by early fall 2010. Based on an original script by The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan, the film links together three stories, each in some way about the border between life and death, this world and the next. (Invictus co-star Matt Damon will play an auto-factory worker who was once a spiritual medium.)
"It's unexplored terrain," Eastwood tells me when I ask what drew him to the material, and indeed, though he has twice cast himself as something like an angel of death — in the existential Westerns High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider — he has never made a film on an overtly supernatural subject. "I liked the way Peter Morgan incorporates real events like the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami and the terrorist attacks on London into a fictional story," he continues. "Also, there's a certain charlatan aspect to the hereafter, to those who prey on people's beliefs that there's some afterlife, and mankind doesn't seem to be willing to accept that this is your life and you should do the best you can with it and enjoy it while you're here, and that'll be enough. There has to be immortality or eternal life and embracing some religious thing. I don't have the answer. Maybe there is a hereafter, but I don't know, so I approach it by not knowing. I just tell the story."
Two weeks later, early on a Friday morning, visual effects supervisor Michael Owens has a batch of effects shots from Invictus' climactic World Cup Final ready for Eastwood's review, and as they look at the footage in a Warner screening room — Owens using a laser pointer to address certain details — what appears on the screen scarcely seems to be computer-generated at all. Sweat and dirt have been added to the Springbok uniforms, as have blood and bruises to the players' faces. "Grub 'em all up," Eastwood says enthusiastically, noting that such digital wizardry has alleviated the need for time-consuming makeup touch-ups during shooting. In addition, a film-processing error that had caused the Springboks' green jerseys to appear brown has been corrected, and Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium, site of the 1995 World Cup Final, has been digitally aged to remove all signs of the facility's extensive 2008 renovation. Owens, a veteran of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, who first worked with Eastwood on 2000's Space Cowboys, acknowledges that there was a steep learning curve involved in bringing the director (who hadn't made an effects-heavy picture since Firefox nearly two decades earlier) into the CGI era. Yet Eastwood has made the leap, and Owens has become one more indispensable player on the filmmaker's team.
"There's a selfishness to it," Eastwood says when I ask him about his well-known loyalty to his collaborators. "They're all people I can depend on. They're people I don't have to start from scratch with just in order to be on the same wavelength with them. They know kind of where I'm headed, and so we just say a few things to each other and we can be sort of minimalistic as far as the intellectual discussion of things."
The next time I see Eastwood is on a brisk, slate-colored morning in early November, when I drop by Hereafter's London set. A small auditorium in central London has been converted into the fictional Center for Psychic Advancement, for one of several scenes in which Marcus, a 12-year-old boy from an inner-city housing estate, attempts to contact his twin brother, Jason, who was killed in a car accident earlier in the script. Although Eastwood seems his usually relaxed self, there's a subtle tension in the air brought on by the tight time restrictions governing the use of minors on film sets. Marcus and Jason are played, respectively and sometimes interchangeably, by Frankie and George McLaren, identical twins and screen newcomers who have been learning as they go on the set. Eastwood, who has directed children many times before, confides that some days have gone more smoothly than others, and in contrast to the taciturn, hands-off directing style he favors with stars like Damon and Freeman, these non-pros bring out another side of the actor-turned-director — the patient, nurturing mentor. It's a curious sight indeed, the gruff septuagenarian legend with his arm around the diminutive preteens, literally walking Frankie through the paces of one shot and, a bit later, standing just off camera, breaking down the emotional beats for a close-up in which Georgie must show, without the aid of dialogue, that he is losing faith in yet another sham psychic. "You're starting to think this guy's another phony," Eastwood whispers, then, after getting a reaction he likes, "You're feeling like you want to get up and leave."
As the day nears its end in London, Eastwood and producer Rob Lorenz stand around a computer watching QuickTime videos of the latest effects shots e-mailed by Owens from L.A., where Invictus is being fine-tuned for its first press screenings.
When I see Invictus in its finished form a week or so later, I'm struck by how effectively Eastwood has managed to capture a sense of Mandela's diplomatic genius while neatly avoiding most of the potholes that have capsized many a Hollywood film about South Africa. In the late '80s and early '90s, as global outrage over apartheid politics grew, movies like The Power of One (which also starred Freeman), Cry Freedom (about assassinated activist Steve Biko) and A Dry White Season (featuring Marlon Brando as a charismatic human-rights attorney) took on the subject, offering a heavily stereotyped vision of the apartheid struggle, which one native South African, Financial Mail critic Peter Wilhelm, memorably termed "Adolf Hitler versus The Cosby Show."
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 and screenwriter Anthony Peckham take 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, justly praised by former New York Times South Africa correspondent Bill Keller as "less an impersonation than an incarnation," grows large. He manages to play one of history's great men without ever 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."
"You've made the first movie of the Obama generation!" So exclaimed an enthusiastic fan upon rushing up to Eastwood after a preview screening of Gran Torino (in which Eastwood starred as a racist Korean War vet who rallies to the defense of his embattled Hmong neighbors) late last year — to which 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. 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. While he would surely have equally little interest in making a film directly about the current climate on Capitol Hill, Eastwood might well make one about another divided, economically troubled country pinning its hopes for "change" on its first black leader.
Does that make Invictus the second movie of the Obama generation? It just might, even if Eastwood, who tends to hold his own political views close to the vest, is 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 tells me 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 a morning walk on the first day of his presidency, sees an Afrikaans headline that asks: "He Can Win an Election But Can He Run a Country?" In the film, Mandela responds, "It is a valid question." 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."
While 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 counter-proof 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.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.