59047800It was quite a night for Clint Eastwood. The 79 year-old legend was honored by the Museum of the Moving Image, which screened his Oscar worthy “Invictus” for a black tie crowd, then roasted and toasted him at a swanky private dinner on Park Avenue.

Clint’s celebrity guests all said nice things about him, from “Invictus” co-stars Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman to Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon (with wife Kyra Sedgwick) and Hilary Swank. Also in the audience were the big guns from Warner Bros. (they’re on a roll right now with “The Blind Side“) and Universal (about to score with “It’s Complicated”), as well as producer Kathleen Kennedy, CAA agent Fred Spektor, Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Bernard, and a few knockouts like Candice Bergen. There were even some odd combos: famed writer Gay Talese reminisced with “Gossip Girl” star Matthew Settle about late pal and man about town writer Noel Behn.

How did they all like “Invictus”? Well, it’s the true story of how Nelson Mandela recruited the white captain of South Africa’s rugby team in order to calm his country out of potential civil war. It worked, for a time: the all-white team (but for one black star) made Afrikaners feel good about their country and Mandela and the end of apartheid. Morgan Freeman is Mandela; Matt Damon is the captain, Francois Pienaar. They’re an unbeatable combo even if their characters ‘ especially Pienaar ”are more symbolic than three dimensional.

Still, there’s a lot of rugby in “Invictus.” It’s a sport few Americans know or care about. I asked Freeman if, after all, this, he understood the sport or enjoyed it. “Uh, no!” he said, laughing. “I like regular football.”

I remember once Charlie Brown asked Linus how he read so much Russian literature. What did he do about the names? “I just skip over them,” replied Linus. Americans may have to skip over the rugby in order to enjoy “Invictus.”

But Eastwood, whose acceptance speech was typically self-effacing, was more intrigued by Mandela and how he kept the peace. “I thought he was just Christ-like,” Eastwood said. “There are just no people like this on the planet.” Clint compared Mandela to John Kennedy. “He could have come out of jail and started a civil war.” Instead, he saw that rugby, the national pastime, could unite whites and blacks. It was a stroke of genius.

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Eastwood and Damon worked together so well that they’re making another film right now, “Hereafter,” a thriller shot in Paris. Damon is a good player for Eastwood, who likes smart actors who can just take direction. Marcia Gay Harden recalled that when they were shooting “Mystic River,” she made some suggestions to Clint about how to do a scene. “He said, ‘You could do that, or you could just do it the way I said’,” Harden recalled Clint responding. He’s a no nonsense guy.

For his part, Damon ‘ pumped up to play rugby ‘ not only looks the part but sounds it. He’s completely absorbed into the role of Francois Pienaar, the real life South African sports hero. “The dialect coach came down to Florida and worked with me for six weeks,” Matt told me. The result is he’ll be on the shortlist for Best Supporting Actor along with Christoph Waltz, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Christopher Plummer, Stanley Tucci, Fred Melamed, and a few others.

“Invictus,” however, is not perfect. While it may be a natural Best Picture nominee because there are ten slots, it’s not an automatic winner like Clint’s “Million Dollar Baby.” For a movie filmed in South Africa, it looks like it was shot in Detroit. Tom Stern, the cinematographer, got that drab city right for “Gran Torino.” But he misses all the gorgeous colors of South Africa, all the foliage, the garments, everything. It’s such a beautiful place ‘ I’ve been there twice in the last five years ‘ but it’s lost on “Invictus.” Even the sky ‘ a robin’s egg blue ‘ is a drab grey.

Anyway, you can’t bat a thousand all the time. “Invictus” is a straightforward saga for Eastwood, who usually can do magic: “Letters From Iwo Jima” was a masterpiece, and was all in Japanese! But here he didn’t listen so well. And the long rugby sequence at the end is quite dull if you don’t care about the sport. After all, scrums don’t look like so much fun.

Interestingly, the best scenes, I thought, were between Mandela’s black security guards and the white sort of Secret Service that’s assigned to him once he becomes president. There’s even an actor who looks like an Eastwood stand in. “Invictus” doesn’t have much story going for it, just the plot of the inevitable rugby match. But this little story of the two sets of guards could easily have been developed into its own film. As it is, their minor interplay keeps the script going when not much else is happening character-wise.

Still, “Invictus” has a powerful message. “I know people get discouraged when movies are all about explosions,” Eastwood said. “I’ve been guilty of that myself. But this way you can still be entertaining and tell a story that’s relevant to something else.”

P.S. Clint said he loved the clip reel showing all his old films, with many iconic catch phrases and scenes. Some of it, he said, getting a big laugh, was opera “at its very worst.” He added: “But it was so much fun to do.”

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