What can generously be described as a dutiful biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t quite portray the eponymous subject as the wise, flawless leader favored by Invictus, but it comes close enough. While there’s no denying Nelson Mandela’s heroism or world-historical importance, simply taking the Clint Eastwood late-in-life apotheosizing approach does neither the subject nor the cinema any favors. Justin Chadwick’s film, by contrast, covers the range of the man’s life, from his early days as a lawyer in the 1940s to his election as South African president in 1994. But though the film shows him engaging in somewhat less than heroic behavior (committing adultery) and submitting to all too human moments (a tearful visit with his daughter while he’s imprisoned), Idris Elba’s Mandela nonetheless comes across more as superman than man, while the movie perfunctorily ticks off the major events in his life and the life of his country.
The most interesting question at the heart of the film is whether or not a politically active individual should deal with the problem of an oppressive regime violently or pacifistically. At first, Mandela embraces the latter approach, but when it doesn’t seem to be working, he begins advocating and organizing violent protests, a strategy that lands him a life sentence in the forbidding Robben Island prison. Decades later, when he seems on the verge of being released in response to immense international pressure and a changing domestic climate, the government officials make his freedom contingent on his renouncing violence tout court, which he refuses to do. But later, as a politician, he embraces a conciliatory approach, resisting pressure to replace white supremacy with black supremacy.
All of this is pretty meaty stuff, but in the hands of Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson, it amounts to little more than a cursory history lesson with no interest in probing the deeper or more complex implications of Mandela’s positions and their relationship to his country’s shifting landscape. Instead, the filmmakers give us the sense that their subject’s actions are always correct and Elba obliges with a performance that’s very interested in superficial affectations and not a whole lot else. The scenes of violent resistance are likewise portrayed as glossy spectacle dosed out in elliptical glimpses, operating along the same sort of worked over surfaces/empty depths approach as the rest of the film.
Even when the film hits on some discordant notes, such as the development of Winnie Mandela’s (Naomie Harris) more militant approach while her husband is locked away, it dispenses with the incongruities almost as soon as it introduces them. That’s because, for all its minimal efforts to tell the whole complicated story of a man and his country, the film is much more comfortable unfolding as a simplistic tale of confronting adversity with all due determination. Letting loose in one final moment of triumph, Long Walk to Freedom thus fulfills its relentless narrative progression, one that ignores the flux and uncertainty of a country’s political reality in favor of a tidy and theoretically rousing conclusion.