In recent years, historical movies like Elizabeth and Lincoln have found a way to show us more by giving us less — narrowing in on pivotal moments in the lives of great men and women to tell a bigger story. We no longer need them to be comprehensive to feel complete. If anything, traditional cradle-to-the-grave narratives like Gandhi now feel as musty and yellowed around the edges as a stack of old newspapers. Sadly, Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is that kind of film. The life of the South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela would seem to be tailor-made for an inspiring Hollywood biopic. But Chadwick’s frustratingly flat portrait works so hard to cram in every signature moment in the antiapartheid activist’s life that it never gets beneath the surface of the man.
Maybe Mandela is too tricky a character to pin down. Both Morgan Freeman (2009’s Invictus) and Terrence Howard (Winnie Mandela from earlier this year) have tried, and neither truly captured the revolutionary’s tinderbox spark and charisma. Now the task falls to Idris Elba, a fine actor who nails the fiery leader’s well-known physical details (the ramrod posture and clipped diction), but gets hamstrung by an overly reverential script. Based on Mandela’s own 1994 memoir, the film exhaustively traces his life, from his early political awakening as an idealistic Johannesburg lawyer in the turbulent 1940s, to his dogged courtship of his future wife and partner in protest, Winnie (an excellent Naomie Harris), to his unjust 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island, to his eventual release and rise to the presidency of a nation that once tried with all its might to break his soul.
All of the highlights are dutifully hit, as in a made-for-TV movie (albeit a lavish, gorgeously photographed one). Unfortunately, they’re hit with a sledgehammer. And the film never pauses long enough to let the weight of history sink in. Nor does it dig deep enough to show us the layers that made Mandela one of the most complicated and inspiring leaders of the 20th century. It’s impossible not to be moved by the brute force of Mandela the man’s tragic life. But Mandela the movie is so hell-bent on delivering the whole story that it ends up biting off more than any two-and-a-half-hour movie could possibly chew. In the end, you’re left unsatisfied and hungry for more. B-