A dutiful and sober-minded recreation of the secret negotiations that led to the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, Endgame is one of those films whose heart-in-the-right-place earnestness is so palpable that you kind of feel bad knocking it. I mean, is it ever not inspiring to recall the downfall of a system of racist degradation? Noble intentions aside, though, Peter Travis’s docudrama is pretty damn dull, with little new to offer besides the mild pleasure of watching skilled actors talk in low tones about serious topics. Attempts to spice up those negotiation scenes with a little shaky-cam action cannot disguise their fundamentally stolid nature; it’s like watching a particularly dry episode of Charlie Rose as filmed by Paul Greengrass.
The year is 1985, and the Apartheid system in South Africa is slowly beginning to implode. Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller), the head of public affairs at Consolidated Goldfieds, a British firm with sizeable interests in South Africa, has brokered a hush-hush series of discussions between the members of the African National Congress and the National Party at a secluded country house in Somerset, England. Though several men participate in the discussions, the film primarily focuses on the individual lives and tentative bond that forms between charismatic ANC director of information Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), an anti-Apartheid academic initially coerced by South African Intelligence member Niel Barnard (Mark Strong) to secretly report on the meetings for the government. We follow these discussions through their series of stops and starts, eventually concluding that, gosh darn it, reasonable and empathetic men—and it is only men in this film—really can see eye to eye when it comes right down to it.
An oversimplification, of course, but such are the high-minded, broadly drawn sentiments that undergird Travis’s direction and Paula Milne’s screenplay, a by-the-numbers adaptation of Robert Harvey’s book The Fall of the Apartheid. This is a shame, because in its first half, Endgame appears to be setting up a series of tangled motives that suggest a more complicated picture of how political change is hammered out behind the scenes. I was particularly intrigued by the film’s initially ambivalent treatment of Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters), whose own covert discussions with Barnard hint at a nuanced portrait of the leader’s imprisonment. As expected, though, Endgame eventually falls into a lockstep canonization of Mandela—a justifiable if predictable choice that leaves Peters, a great actor, with little more to do than nobly squint into the distance.
What sparks are felt throughout Endgame come largely from Hurt and Ejiofor, who both seem to understand exactly the type of talky, tentative movie they’re in and do their best to bring in some glints of humor and uncertainty. There’s a certain pleasure to be had watching both men gaze at one another with dignified admiration and cycle through other such rituals of masculine respect. The lack of substance beneath Endgame’s good intentions, however, leave these moments feeling pat and a little hollow, though not as quite as empty as Travis and Milne’s airless final attempt at “relevance” via last-second connections to present-day conflicts in the Middle East.