Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa
Director: Justin Chadwick
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"Ordinary Love")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars
A trope nearly as old as the movies themselves, biopics have been getting financed and produced for decades by Hollywood, and you really aren’t famous until you have a movie about your life.
In some respects, this is a great thing. Movies expand the audience of a person in a way few other things could, and in the case of Nelson Mandela, that’s always a good thing. People learning more about the world and the steps that one person can take to make it a better place-that’s always something worth celebrating.
The problem is, though, that Hollywood is not good at making biopics, despite making them ad nauseum. There’s a bevy of reasons for this. For starters, biopics are greatly hindered by the audience knowing what’s going to happen. We know that, say, Nelson Mandela is going to get out of prison and change South Africa for all-time. There’s no mystery here because it already happened and happened while the entire world was watching. And yet Hollywood frequently doesn’t work around this fact with a movie. With Long Walk to Freedom, it doesn’t play up the situations that we might now know about Mandela’s life, and instead acts as if it is a surprise that Mandela is about to be freed of his own accord and soon become president.
That is one of the biggest issues at the center of Long Walk to Freedom, an exceedingly dull and lifeless biopic that managed to land a sole Oscar nomination for Best Song last year, hence why you’re reading about it here (we’ve got one more 2013 OVP film to go before we dive into our fifth OVP ballot, in case you were curious, and it’s on my TV stand as I type this). The film acts as if most of the information we are receiving is new. Five years ago, a considerably better (though not really “good”) film about Mandela was released called Invictus, and it smartly focused on a less publicized aspect of Mandela’s life.
You can even make a decent biopic about a very famous person in a very famous part of their life if you’re willing to give a little on the main character. Two recent examples of this are The Queen and The Social Network. The Queen is anchored by Helen Mirren trying to humanize one of the most famous people in the world who is notably private about her personal life. It works not because we get particularly new information (almost all of the events of the film was well-publicized at the time or in the years after), but because it is willing to explore the inner depths of Queen Elizabeth II at her most unpopular. The same can be said for David Fincher’s masterpiece The Social Network, which does its best to not only give us a very human side to a man whom the public knows little about, but also to show the deep flaws that drove him to become one of the world’s most powerful innovators.
The message here, and the reason that Long Walk to Freedom further doesn’t work is that while you don’t need to be hampered by a familiar story (though you certainly can be), you cannot succeed if you’re not willing to make your main character a real person. Real people have deep flaws, jealousies and passions. They take advantage of their positions and make the wrong decision and get away with it. They are human beings. And Idris Elba’s Nelson Mandela is not a human being. He is, instead, a saint amongst men.
It seems callous to say this about Mandela so soon after his death, but no one is perfect, and I’m guessing he would readily admit that. Idris Elba’s Mandela, though, with his constant turning of the other cheek and complete lack of self-doubt, is too perfect to exist in real life. Constrast that with Naomie Harris’s performance of Winnie as the spawn-of-satan and you not only have the perfect leader, but the perfect, patient man dealing with a deeply flawed wife. This may reflect real life to some degree (Winnie Mandela has become a deeply polarizing figure in South African history), but it doesn’t make a particularly strong film.
The film’s song, it should also be noted, is somewhat disappointing in its placement, starting right at the credits rather than having any connection to the film itself. The movie was in desperate need of some motion-why couldn’t this have gotten a more proper musical treatment and “Ordinary Love” would have been one of several U2 songs to play at key moments in the picture? As it is, it’s just resting there on its own merits, and the film doesn’t have the grandeur to make you want to stay and listen to it like “My Heart Will Go On” in Titanic.