While the recent death of Nelson Mandela may lend a special importance to Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, do not be mistaken — this is every inch your standard biopic, complete with almost every issue and flaw that suggests. The best biopics often focus on a moment or chapter in the life of their subject in order to give you a snapshot of the person. The worst kind of biopics try to cover too much ground — an approach that spreads the subject too thin and ultimately tells you little to nothing, all the while approaching the topic with too much reverence.
Mandela certainly leans toward the latter as it attempts to cover nearly five decades of the man’s life. Thankfully, the film isn’t afraid to look at the more troubling aspects of that life, namely Mandela’s womanizing in his early years and his support of armed, violent revolt. The film — which is based on Mandela’s own memoir — is fairly refreshing in its honesty, showing Mandela the man, rather than the icon. And the film gets off to a strong start with striking opening images and bits of overblown pomp such as the storming of the train station. Idris Elba as Mandela has the kind of onscreen gravitas that makes him a believable political paragon and leader of men.
But Mandela wants to do too much. The edges of the narrative — and their ability to remain captivating — soon begin to fray around the time Mandela is sent to prison, which is a pity since that’s the most iconic part of the man’s story. The problem demonstrates why trying to squeeze the bulk of a person’s life into 139 minutes is so tricky. First off, there’s 27 years in prison to depict: Mandela has a tough time translating those years into anything touching or relatable. The movie just moves along and Elba ends up caked with increasing amounts of old-age makeup. (Seriously, it gets so bad he starts to look like Grandpa in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)).
The film glosses over so many years of Mandela’s life that the scope and importance are lost in the bargain — an ironic outcome for a movie that wants to be grand and important. It yearns so much for serious-mindedness — and in turn, awards — that it’s got a U2 song over the end credits (nothing says “Give me any old Oscar” like trying for the Best Original Song statue). None of this quite wrecks the film. There are enough good ideas and performances to make the movie worthwhile, but in a week with legitimate must-sees, Mandela is pretty negligible. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.
Playing at United Artists Beaucatcher