On its surface, this featured based on the life of the recently departed Nelson Mandela (based on his 1994 autobiography) is a passionate but fairly by-the-numbers account of arguably the most famous man in the world for a time. A filmmaker does not have to stretch the truth to make Mandela's life more interesting; it's all there for the telling. And I'm not implying that director Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, THE FIRST GRADER) has significantly changed any part of Mandela's life to make it more dramatic or interesting. I saw MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM shortly before Mandela died, and I looked at the experience as one of learning. I certainly knew a great deal about his life (I had just seen the lesser work, Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard, a couple of month's earlier, so I had something of a refresher on his trials and tribulations fairly recently), but LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is a far more complete telling.
What impressed me most about this work was the scale and authenticity. Clearly shot in many of the same placed where events first took place, LONG WALK TO FREEDOM takes us from Mandela's younger years, through his early years as a successful South African lawyer (often putting him in courtrooms with judges and other attorneys who didn't recognize his right to even be in the room with them), to a young man in love, through his years as an activist, prisoner of conscience on Robben Island to president of his nation when he was well into his 70s. Idris Elba plays Mandela at nearly every age (his old-age makeup is actually quite good), and while he doesn't exactly like the man he's playing, his voice and way of carrying himself almost make you forget that.
Much like his book, the film doesn't shy away from moments in his life when Mandela made mistakes. By sticking to his guns as a prisoner and never breaking ranks with his fellow detainees, he was kept separate from wife Winnie (Naomie Harris, mostly recently seen as Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall), something that drove a wedge between them politically and personally, to the point where she was leading and instructing small gangs of followers to commit atrocities that Nelson could not be associated with.
But more interestingly, the film reveals the details of Mandela's release from prison after nearly 30 years. While many around the world remember that remarkable day in 1990, but it turns out, he was in constant negotiations with the de Klerk administration to be released on terms that would benefit them. This was especially important because the nation was on the verge of exploding into chaos. During these talks, Mandela was allowed to live largely outside the prison in a comfortable home where he could see his family. Such treatment was often looked upon with disdain by some of his former inmates, but Mandela took advantage of the position he was placed in by both blacks and whites in South Africa.
Director Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson (GLADIATOR, LES MISERABLES) does a great job of making clear what is going on in these sequences, and how Mandela insisted that the black population maintain the peace during this transitionary period rather than launch into all out violent retaliation. It's a fantastic re-creation of both the time and mood, with Elba at the center reminding us that Mandela's first priority was peace and establishing democratic elections that he would likely win. "We cannot win a war, but we can win an election," he said what is arguably his most important speech.
Some may complain that LONG WALK TO FREEDOM doesn't do its subject justice, but I think the greater injustice would be to glorify him (or worse, deify him) to such an extent that he looks somehow superhuman. Elba's performance may be too subdued for some, but he's right in assuming Mandela didn't live every moment in full bellowing speech mode. There are times when the film seems to jump from major moment to major moment without taking time to give us a few simple, humanizing moments in Mandela's life. There are even a few moments near the beginning of the film when violent acts are committed on his behalf without much in the way of condemnation from him.
But for all of its shortcomings, the movie is more than simply a textbook brought to life. Elba and Harris are both acting powerhouses who make watching them a crucial part of enjoying movies these days. I feel like the makers of this film did the best they could by wishing to stick to as many of the facts as possible. Part of criticizing a film is contemplating (even if it's just in your head) what might have been done better, and that's not an easy question to answer with LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. Certainly the passion and intention are there, as well as the spirit that Mandela inspired, and a lot of what is in this film will inspire people, especially younger audience members who may find it difficult to believe that a man such as this ever existed. Let's hope that by the end of the film, they believe something different.