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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. 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? "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.
"You can tell he's tired," Eastwood says. "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.