He spent 28 years in prison and this is what he gets?
“Mandela: Long Road To Freedom” should have been a layup. A slow burn leading to eventual triumph, moving speeches, Idris Elba raging against injustice, the world made a better place because of one man's sacrifice. But as crazy and offensive as it may sound, you'll get more chills from Elba's idiotic speech about canceling the apocalypse in “Pacific Rim” than you will in this by-the-numbers bore.
Some mock Richard Attenborough's “Gandhi” as medicine to be endured, but that 30 year old (anti)war horse positively crackles by comparison. Not only does it have a richer script with pockets of humor, it takes the time to sketch out, if even in broad strokes, a political context for all the key players. Also, it exploits the natural beauty of the setting (of course Mandela spent a helluva lot of time in a jail cell, but with an 150-minute running time we see plenty of other scenes set elsewhere in South Africa – let's get our money's worth by taking a look around.)
“Mandela: Long Road To Freedom” is surprisingly lax in giving you any history about the region. All you know is that the whites (with one quick exception) are bad. Mandela starts off as a successful lawyer, but has enough of working in the system when various indignities of apartheid build up. He joins (and soon becomes a leader) in the political party/resistance group ANC, who, if you believe this movie, blow up empty post offices and only injure themselves (even Mandela's staunchest supporters will agree that the ANC's actions were more untidy than this). While the film later shows Mandela's refusal to categorically reject violence, it presents this decision solely in terms of the rather understandable “hey, we'll renounce when they renounce.”
This is not to say “Mandela” lacks the scenes of brutality that is par for the course for this sort of film. But other than one police action that turns into a shooting spree, we mostly see (and feel) the psychological damage done to a man with a life imprisonment sentence.
Even with some of the cheesy makeup that comes at the end of the film, Idris Elba remains no joke of an actor. When he's unable to attend his son's funeral, you may need to reach for the hankie. When he is finally transferred to weird limbo house arrest, the awkwardness around his wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) is similarly heartbreaking.
Indeed, the relationship (and unexpected breakup) with Winnie is the most interesting part of the movie. Harris plays Winnie Mandela as every bit her husband's equal, not a long-suffering bride pining for her man. She suffers her own torment in prison and is clearly a gifted leader. The film does condemn her as an adulterer, but with the caveat of “well, we understand.” More biting is the portrayal of her as defiantly radical and protective of those in the cause prone to light dissenters on fire. If this movie was made with Nelson's stamp of approval, maybe he's still got some anger issues to work out with his ex-wife.
The third act of the film does get a little juicy, but by then it's far too late. We've already suffered through a film strip montage set to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” (Seriously, the executors of Gil Scott-Heron's estate clearly don't know how to tell anyone “no,” do they?)
Moreover, the film takes a sharp left turn to the lane of Mandela the Peace Maker, the kindly grandfather figure we all love. He ultimately realize that peace and reconciliation is the only way to save his country, but there is precious little in the film that actually shows us how he came to the realization. By comparison, Malcolm X's turn toward a more inclusive philosophy at the end of Spike Lee's movie is one that feels like a true catharsis. It was also rendered visually, with the striking sequence shot in Mecca. You get nothing remotely like that here. You get Idris Elba in makeup leftover from “J. Edgar” going on television and saying “be excellent to one another.”
Despite the waves of unstoppable guilt, we'll rise up and say what needs to be said: you can skip “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Any PBS documentary on the man will get you what you need, and in probably less time.
SCORE: 4.0 / 10