If there were ever a season to learn, via the movies, about crucial periods of history, it's this one. Last month we were introduced to "12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen's unforgettable look at American slavery, through one man with an incredible story.
And now we have "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," a film about another vital chapter in the world's history - the struggle against apartheid in South Africa - also through the incredible story of one man, albeit one we know well, and an adored hero of our times.
Cinematically, "Mandela," directed by Justin Chadwick and based on Mandela's autobiography, is not nearly as groundbreaking, nor as powerful, as "12 Years a Slave." But that doesn't mean it doesn't handle its subject with admirable ambition and scope.
It is, though, that ambition and scope that also bogs down the movie a bit. Mandela's life is portrayed here from his beginnings in a rural village to his election as president in 1994 at age 75. That's a huge amount of ground to cover, even without the newsreel-like scenes of historical context. And so, the film can feel too much like a stock, traditional biopic, with little time to delve into any one thing.
The happy news here is Idris Elba's magnetic performance as Mandela, portraying both the man's heroic aspects and, at times, his faults: The younger Mandela was rather a playboy, it appears, and the film does not portray his behavior toward his first wife in a favorable light.
Most of all, Elba finds the core of humanity, wisdom, strength and patience that made this one man capable of changing his country's history. By the end of this 139-minute film, Elba has so inhabited the character that you might be stunned to see photos of the real man, during credits, and realize the extensive physical differences (although the real man, apparently, thought he might be seeing footage of himself when the producer showed him a scene).
The wise casting extends to the second most important character, Winnie Mandela. As portrayed by Naomie Harris, the woman who would become Mandela's second wife first appears to us as a hypnotically lovely young lady, full of verve. "I've heard you have a lot of girlfriends," Winnie tells Mandela when they meet. "I'm different." And you believe her. Later, Harris must transform Winnie into a hardened, increasingly bold activist, eventually at odds with her husband. Again, you believe her.
We get to know Mandela as an engaging young lawyer, reluctant to attend an African National Congress meeting. As he becomes more involved in the struggle, his worried mother, Nosekeni (an affecting Zikhona Sodlaka), makes no secret of her disapproval. His first marriage fails.
Mandela's lovely courtship with Winnie culminates in a traditional wedding in tribal dress. This dreamlike moment gives way to scenes of the shocking Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when police mowed down 69 people. Soon, activist Mandela is on the run.
His famous trial, with the masses gathered outside, is well captured here. As the world knows, Mandela and his co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison, and his next 27 years were spent there, 18 of them at the forbidding Robben Island.
"You will never touch a woman or a child again," a prison official tells Mandela. "You will die here." Everyone watching the film will know this isn't true. But knowing what happens hardly blunts the impact of the thrilling 1990 release scene, nor Mandela's election as president in 1994.
A closing scene of the older Mandela, surrounded by children, reminds us that he is still alive, at 95. This is the perfect time for youngsters (or their elders) who don't know enough about the man to go learn about him. For that reason alone, if not for Elba's terrific performance, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is 139 minutes very well spent.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," a Weinstein Company release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language." Running time: 139 minutes. Three stars out of four.