A sprawling, old-fashioned biopic, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” falls into the common biopic trap: It tries to tell too much. It dramatizes the life of South African Nelson Mandela, viewed by some as a terrorist and others as a hero, and his long, grueling journey to freedom and eventually presidency after being imprisoned for 27 years. An amazing story, but one that can’t be told in a single two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay by William Nicholson (based on Mandela’s own autobiography), “Mandela” is brimming with South African pride, pertaining both to the nation’s politics and culture, but good intentions can only go so far.

The movie begins in 1942 and finds a young, ambitious Mandela (Idris Elba) as a small-time Johannesburg lawyer doing what he can to bring justice to mistreated Afrikaners. After continual disappointments and clashes with ignorant white South Africans, he decides to join equality protests that are just starting to emerge.

From here, Chadwick moves at a brisk pace through each period of Mandela’s life — from the first protests, to the time when Mandela meets his future wife Winnie (Naomi Harris), a social worker ready for a change as well, to his 27-year imprisonment and subsequent release, and inauguration as the first democratically elected president.

 

No central focus

But what begins as brisk eventually turns into slogging as Chadwick and Co. desperately try to compact everything they possibly can into one movie. Every so often, there are good moments, especially during Mandela’s imprisonment period and the juxtaposition of Winnie and her own struggles on the outside. However, Chadwick doesn’t let these moments sink in long enough because he rushes to the next scene or time period. The movie, on a whole, feels like a flimsy, made-for-TV version of Mandela’s story.

Mandela has become such a major historical figure that it would have been far better if Chadwick and Nicholson had taken the same approach Steven Spielberg did with his Abraham Lincoln biopic (“Lincoln”) last year; instead of attempting to tell Mandela’s whole story, they should have devoted their attention and energy on one period of his life. There’s plenty of material there; in fact, there are at least two or three great or near-great Mandela movies trapped in this lackluster one.

The movie never manages to find a central focus. There are abrupt shifts in tone — from Mandela having a chummy conversation with his political mates, to an intense standoff between police and protesters, and then to an extremely sappy moment between Mandela and Winnie.

 

Deserving of better

Elba proves, yet again, to be a talented actor capable of carrying a movie. He’s, no doubt, the best part of the film, but even he isn’t given that much to do. For the most part, Mandela remains perched on a high pedestal when he should have been brought down to our level, like Abraham Lincoln was in “Lincoln.” We feel distant from him.

It’s even worse with Winnie: Again, Harris (two extremely talented British actors are used in the movie) does what she can with the material, but she simply isn’t given a chance to grow and, instead, is shown doing the same actions repeatedly (taking part and shaking her fist during those many speeches and protests, for example).

The movie wants to show Mandela’s extraordinary journey (hence, the subtitle), but two-and-a-half hours just isn’t enough time to deliver an effective and substantial portrait of someone’s life. Perhaps the filmmakers could have gone the TV-miniseries route, where they could have focused and spent the appropriate amount of time on each period in his life.

Whatever they could have done, Mandela was a great historical and political figure who deserves much better than this movie.

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