It would appear that the latest "masterpiece" phase of Clint Eastwood's career has quieted down for the time being: after making a few knockouts in the middle of the decade, and in the process fully justifying those of us who'd been known to call him one of America's great filmmakers since sometime in the '90s or '80s, he appears in the last two years to have settled back into his comfortable groove of making extremely well-crafted films that are just a notch shy of great: Changeling and Gran Torino last year both fit that bill, and now he's done it again with Invictus, a pretty damn satisfying but undemanding story about politics, sports, and men doing their jobs as best they can.

That one of those men is Nelson Mandela, played inevitably by Morgan Freeman, points out that Eastwood is, to say the least, still operating in his unbecoming Oscarbait mode; although one of the foremost pleasures of Invictus lies in observing how freely it toys with our conception of what a prestige picture ought to be like. I say "Nelson Mandela Oscarbait", and you are almost certainly picturing a biopic, like I was - but Invictus is absolutely not that, whatsoever. Taking place between 1990 and 1995, it doesn't really track Mandela's life or personality very much - he's offscreen for lengthy chunks of the back half - but follows along one single project that the South African president oversaw during his first, deeply contentious term: his attempt to unify the black majority and white minority of the terribly divided country by coercing the South Africa Springboks rugby team (an almost exclusive-white club, favored by the diehard racists of the country) to defy all the odds and win the 1995 rugby World Cup. Not that Mandela could personally do much to advance that cause, but if the movie is to be trusted, he got the ball rolling, so to speak, by meeting with the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and showing him what truly inspirational leadership looks like, the kind that makes everyone you meet want to break their backs hoping to please you.

What is most surprising at first is that Invictus isn't "about" Mandela, or Pienaar. Obviously, Freeman is going to be nominated for an Oscar and God knows how many other awards for playing Mandela, and I'd not be half-surprised if he won; but that is because he is Morgan Freeman, playing Nelson Mandela. The screenplay by Anthony Peckham doesn't really allow for the actor to do much besides show up and do his very best mimicry job - which to be fair, is exceptionally good - for there is very little of Mandela's internal psychology to be found on display, except for some hints here and there that his single-minded devotion to making a perfect South Africa results from his feelings of loss, that he must be separated from his wife and family. We learn even less of Pienaar: he comes of racist Afrikaner background, and like just about anyone, he is dazzled and dumbfounded to be asked a personal favor by the leader of his country, and he commands the respect of his team even when they are at their most incompetent.

I don't count this a point against Invictus; indeed, that's part of what makes it rather more interesting than I'd feared months ago when "Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela picture" was all we had to go on. Indeed, the filmmakers do a rather nice job of refusing to sanctify Mandela, except insofar as any film about his deeds must sanctify him: like Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi, he's the sort of figure about him merely the objective truth makes him out to be some kind of mythic hero. It's likely not an accident that the scene which makes the most self-conscious effort to treat him in this way, when Pienaar visits the cell at the Robben Island prison where Mandela was imprisoned for many years, and has a vision of the president as an inmate, reciting William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus" - "I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul" - is also the schmaltziest and least-convincing in the movie.

Far better when the movie simply presents Mandela and Pienaar as two men driven by their codes and their honor to do what they think must be done, and to do it in the best way they can imagine; a quintessential Eastwood theme, touched upon in films as different as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Letters from Iwo Jima, Dirty Harry and Unforgiven. Of course, Mandela is also an idealist, something that most certainly isn't quintessentially Eastwood; but in Invictus, at least, his idealism is presented only as a driving force, not as an end in and of itself, as it would be in a more standard biopic. I think the film ends up being a much better tribute to the man than a standard-issue film on the subject might have been: it doesn't do nearly enough in the way of contextualising his achievements, but presents him as a wise, pragmatic politician with an uncanny understanding of human character; presents him in other words as a born leader of the highest caliber.

In the end, Invictus is basically little more than an interesting (and fictionalised) told with a high level of professionalism and a minimum of bullshit. It is, like Gran Torino, a rather more efficient film than Eastwood has been given to making of late; only its extended finale, a lengthy segment of the climactic rugby match that is the film's chief sop to sports movie convention, really pulls down the crisp, done-and-out proficiency of the earlier film (the last 25 minutes of the 134 minute feature feel like a solid third of the total running time). At this point, the team that the director has assembled has been working together for long enough that watching one of his movies is like watching a precision machine: Tom Stern's characteristically desaturated cinematography (though Invictus might well be the most colorful of their eight collaborations) is so reliable that it hardly seems worth mentioning the unshowy compositions, which have a distinct rightness to them throughout; Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach's editing is equally unflashy, and rather tremendously good here - I've always felt that Cox's important role in giving Eastwood's movies their certain brisk punch is undervalued, and Invictus is one of the best things that he and his former assistant, now full collaborator, have ever done for the director, moving through scenes with exactly the right pacing to keep our attention always focused on the right details without jumping up and saying, "look at the editing!"

If, in the end, Invictus is a bit more shallow than one might have liked, emotionally uplifting without being terribly thoughtful about it, at least it has the uncommon decency not to be maudlin. And there are a few moments scattered here and there, mostly quiet shots focused on Freeman's thoughtful face, where the film does have an impact that far outdoes the screaming tantrums of most Oscarbait (the final shot before the credits is a really wonderful, pragmatic way to stop the movie, in this respect). It may not be a work of artistic genius, but at least it's a solid example of the top-notch nuts-and-bolts filmmaking of the old school that is so rarely practiced these days, and never better than in the hands of Eastwood and company.