AFI 2013 Review: Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom

Evaluating a biopic is similar to evaluating a genre film. One has to look at it a little differently, because there are certain tick marks that don’t apply for other features. If said pic spans decades of a public figure, it’s going to be broad, feel a little crammed and jumpy, from life event to life event. I think the best way to evaluate a biopic that spans decades is in the fluidity of its leaps and if the performances can take it bounds.

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is exactly what the title spells out. It is not Mandela: The Lawyer Years, Mandela: Imprisoned, or Mandela: The President. The film is about freedom: his own freedom and African freedom. That is a long road, too long to fit in any narrative length. Is a film devoted to certain sections of Mandela’s life worthy? Indeed. So is a film set solely in apartheid and so is a film only about his tortured into militancy wife, Winnie Cooper. That is not what Justin Chadwick’s film is. This film has taken a very large autobiographical book from a very influential, larger than life figure and put it into a two and a half hour running time.

On the subject of titles, Lincoln is misleading one, and perhaps more suitable for sides of buses and billboards to get folks into the theater. That film was not a biopic. It took a section of the life of a larger than life figure and therefore was able to let him sit at a table and tell stories. Mandela has very short scenes, they have to drive the film to where we know it’s going. In this regard, there are selected moments of interest and extra space. Such as when Mandela (Idris Elba), after years of imprisonment, has been given a furnished home of disguised comforted confinement where family can visit and stay over. He’s become too big of an international symbol. The guards tell him that his wife can stay over. He informs them that he loves the woman he knew. So much time has passed that Winnie (Naomie Harris) is new and different to him and it’s something that he’ll have to ease back into.

There is a more interesting film there; yes, in fact, it could be fascinating, especially with these actors. However, this is a biopic and as such, it’s a nice aside and reprieve from the box-checking life moments.

Mandela mostly focuses on the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 leading to Mandela and the ANC sending a message by bombing buildings, his accepting life imprisonment for symbolic purposes in 1963 and the political maneuvering on behalf of those he was imprisoned with and the government once his imprisonment became of international interest.

The film ends in the 1990’s. It’s substantial ground to cover. There is great mythology already in just the name Mandela. Does this film give us extra insight? Not particularly. But the film also doesn’t paint Mandela as a deity. Elba is not given an easy task, as Mandela is a symbol as big as Gandhi, with casual civilians associating his name with peace, freedom and doves. Elba gives as wide a performance as he can within the parameters of the skipping narrative: he’s sensual, sunken, and proud but never biopic-y impenetrable. Elba has always been a consistently great actor in television, and imbued a bit more charisma in the paper-thin film roles given to him (Prometheus, Pacific Rim, Thor). If Mandela is the movie that bumps him up to leading man status, he’s certainly ready.

Within the biopic nature of this film there are still some things that knock down Mandela within the accepted tropes of event to event to event. For instance, while this isn’t Apartheid: The Movie, there are a few too-simple of scenes that push Mandela to action; for instance, Mandela meets friend at a bar in the 50’s, and this friend is introduced only to be killed almost immediately within his introduction. This tiny role is just a device for Mandela to absorb injustice. Additionally, as this is a movie about Mandela, more time with him in prison would have been beneficial. The politics of his imprisonment speak as much to what is occurring outside the prison, and bringing in a character here or there for the sole purpose of providing “outside the prison” context only brings up more questions about the various causes and distracts from the man himself.

However, with the above criteria of decade-spanning-bio-pic analysis of fluidity and performances, Mandela largely succeeds in both of these accounts. The biggest compliment for Mandela (outside of accolades to Elba) is that certain moments within this biopic construct are done well enough that we can see that certain days, weeks of Mandela’s life are worthy of a film. The Long Walk to Freedom is what we currently have, and it’ll do as a worthy introduction. The outro (a new song by U2), however, is by far the cheapest thing that Chadwick does on this Long Walk. Can we journey to Africa without Bono, anymore?

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. Follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.