Year in Film: Director of the Decade

Clint Eastwood talks straight about his prolific career.

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."
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"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. (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. 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 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."

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.

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