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. 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, 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...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, 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, 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 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."

The next time I see Eastwood is on a brisk 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 is 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.

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 Los Angeles, 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.

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. 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. 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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