Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) is told like an obituary; it hits all the notes, is reverential, but doesn’t leap off the page. That it can, sadly, act as an obituary now that its subject, Nelson Mandela, has passed, is perhaps fitting. This is a respectful, reverent and informative biopic; it’s also by-the-numbers and staid, the story of a great man told from the perspective that knows he was great, not a fly-on-the-wall look into a man becoming great. It is a book report, full of information but it doesn’t breathe.
That’s a film critic’s complaint. That’s the gripe of a man who has seen too many movies and longs for things he’s never seen. There’s a place for a movie like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, an important place. It takes all the facts and renders them on the screen. It is, after all, an important movie about one of the most important men in recent history, if not all history. That it seems to be made specifically to be shown in high school history classes is the snark of a snob, but it isn’t any less true. One way to look at it is that it is traditional, competent and honorable; another way is that it’s uninsightful, graceless and dry.
It follows the course of Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) from his beginnings as a dutiful lawyer through his interminable incarceration at Robben Island to his election as president of South Africa. The story is one that we know (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be told) and the interest of the movie (when there is some) comes from watching these famous scenes being played out. The best moments aren’t the scenes in the prison but the process of reunification once Mandela is released, particularly the friction between the pragmatist Nelson and his estranged and more militant wife Winnie (Naomie Harris). These scenes crackle with more grit than the rest of the movie and they have the feeling of having real emotional and political stakes, which is no easy trick in a movie about a history most of the audience knows the outcome of. Harris and Elba are to be thanked for this, to be sure, (the movie owes a debt to Elba, whose driving and affecting performance is the highlight of the movie and the bulwark between it and a stupefying stuffiness), but these are the only moments in which we get even a little peek into what these people actually thought about the extraordinary things happening around them, many of which they are the drivers. Everything else is a series of historical people doing historical things with little question of why.
The problem with biopics is that the assumption persists that the greater the man, the greater the biopic must be, when often it’s the opposite that is true. Perhaps a comprehensive look at a man as momentous as Mandela was doomed from the beginning to the relatively lifeless fate of Long Walk to Freedom. The annals of biopics are full of stories that faithfully reproduce the acts but fail to capture the man (only Malcolm X  pulls it off with Gandhi coming close). By and large, the best focus on one part of a person’s life or choose as their subject a relatively unknown public figure (Amadeus  and The Passion of Joan of Arc  are good examples of the former, Raging Bull  and JFK , good examples of the latter, with Schindler’s List  taking its cues from both philosophies). I may go as far as to say that I got a better picture of the man who was Nelson Mandela from his small part in Invictus(2009, played by Morgan Freeman) as I do here simply because even in a reduced role, more time was devoted to his motivation. Outside of a general and unexplained gravitation toward the right thing, very little can be weaned from Long Walk to Freedom.
The movie has its heart in the right place and its job of smoothly taking all the information and translating it for the screen it is fairly masterly. It’s just that it could have used that mastery to better effect with more focus or by taking another tack. As it is, it’s a dutiful hymn to a great man, a capable re-creation of history, written with something less than lightning.