When Clint Eastwood was first asked to consider directing 'Invictus,' the true story of Nelson Mandela's use of the national rugby team to unite post-Apartheid South Africa, he was a great fan of Mandela but knew nothing about rugby.

"No, I didn't know much about rugby, except that it was a rough sport," Eastwood said by phone shortly after the Los Angeles premiere of 'Invictus.' "But 'Million Dollar Baby' wasn't a boxing movie, either. It was a father/daughter love story."

In that sense, 'Invictus' may be described as a father/country love story. Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for his activism against white minority rule in South Africa, became the country's president shortly after his release and shocked folks on both sides of the racial divide by keeping many of his predecessor's white cabinet members and personal bodyguards while launching a policy of reconciliation. When Clint Eastwood was first asked to consider directing 'Invictus,' the true story of Nelson Mandela's use of the national rugby team to unite post-Apartheid South Africa, he was a great fan of Mandela but knew nothing about rugby.

"No, I didn't know much about rugby, except that it was a rough sport," Eastwood said by phone shortly after the Los Angeles premiere of 'Invictus.' "But 'Million Dollar Baby' wasn't a boxing movie, either. It was a father/daughter love story."

In that sense, 'Invictus' may be described as a father/country love story. Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for his activism against white minority rule in South Africa, became the country's president shortly after his release and shocked folks on both sides of the racial divide by keeping many of his predecessor's white cabinet members and personal bodyguards while launching a policy of reconciliation.

"What's past is past," he says in the movie. "We look to the future now."

'Invictus' covers the period from Mandela's release to the World Cup rugby victory of South Africa's Springboks national team. Early in the film, we see Mandela, played by lookalike-soundalike Morgan Freeman, watching a rugby match between the Springboks and Great Britain's team and noting that "all the whites cheer for South Africa and all the blacks cheer for England."

The reality under apartheid was that blacks so loathed their white suppressors that the uniform of the Springboks became a target of their rage. Mandela decided, in the movie as in life, to change that dynamic and make the Springboks a true national team.

What happened is, in fact, the stuff of sports screen legend. The Springboks were terrible when Mandela took office and with him providing symbolic and personal inspiration, the team won the 1995 World Cup. It was as if Mandela had divined their strength and victory, which is exactly what many South Africans believed. But 'Invictus' does not go down that gilded path.

"The script was very straight-forward," Eastwood said. "What happened in 1995 was dramatic enough in itself; it didn't need to be pumped up."

'Invictus' came to Eastwood by way of Freeman, who had long wanted to portray Mandela on film. When Freeman read Anthony Peckham's script, adapted from John Carlin's book, 'Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,' he sent it to Eastwood, who had directed him to Oscar nominations for both 1994's 'Unforgiven' and 2004's 'Million Dollar Baby.'

Having interviewed Eastwood at the pace of about every other movie since the early 1980s, I can attest that to him the script is everything -- always. He is famous among screenwriters for not messing around with final scripts. Paul Haggis, whose screenplay for 'Million Dollar Baby' earned an Oscar nomination, told me that the finished movie was exactly as he had written it.

"I don't see any sense in taking a script that you think is perfect and changing it," Eastwood said. "Just as I would never start making a movie with a script I don't think is right, I'd never change one that is."

While another director might want to meet the subject of a biographical film, Eastwood said he doesn't think it's necessary. He's directing for the character as written in the script.

"I did get to meet Mandela when he visited the set about half-way through production," Eastwood said. "He's a very charismatic guy. The funny thing was that Morgan was in the room and it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began."

The scenes where Mandela takes office and begins embracing people -- both black and white -- create an obvious parallel to President Obama's first days in office here. But where Obama's entreaties to Republicans were largely rejected, Mandela's gestures recharged the political atmosphere from negative to positive in South Africa.

Eastwood says the Obama parallel is drawn by others, not him. He said he likes Obama, but as a fiscal conservative he's not happy with the way he's handled the economy. An adherent of Milton Friedman's conservative economic theory, Eastwood says Friedman "must be rolling over in his grave about the way we're operating now."

But the 79-year-old Eastwood, who first voted in 1952 for Dwight Eisenhower, is just as unhappy with the personal invective being hurled at Obama from the far right, as in Rush Limbaugh's oft-repeated "I hope he fails."

"Hoping that the president fails is suicidal, it's wishing us all failure," Eastwood said. "I'm old-fashioned that way. If a person is elected, he's my president. You don't have to agree with everything he does, but you want him to succeed."
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