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.
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."