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Movie review: Get to know 'Mandela' in a film that is made literally by the book

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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The great Nelson Mandela passed away on Dec 5, so the release of the new film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (opening today), couldn't be more appropriately timed. Those who lived through his time know the man as a legendary figure and in my generation (thirty-something-ers), it would be impossible not to remember his release from prison in 1990, after spending 27 years in captivity, and the media storm that followed at that time. In the last few decades since his release, he was an important public servant, becoming South Africa's first black president in 1995.

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The movie is an attempt to bottle up his life's journey - his "long walk to freedom" - over the span of a few hours. As biographies go, it is plain vanilla...a by-the-book (literally) account of his early years and mostly, his incredible evolution behind bars leading up to his release.

Little time is spent at the beginning of his life, although we are hustled through these "less important" years. The story really picks up when Mandela (Idris Elba) is imprisoned and sentenced to life in prison for what was viewed as treason against his government, for organizing a coup against the apartheid government.

While in prison, Mandela grows into a legend for what he represents. Outside of the walls, there is rising opposition to the oppressive government, all in the name of Mandela.

But too much of the movie is given to us in bland scoops of propaganda. The black prisoners are only given shorts to work in, but after years of standing his ground with the prison guards, Mandela eventually gets them to grant all of the captives long pants. We never really know why, other than that we know that this is Nelson Mandela, hero of men.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the evolution of Nelson's wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris). Harris gives a deft performance, from a wide-eyed and innocent youth into the militant soldier that she would become. The relationship between them is the most interesting part of the movie, but it isn't developed into anything all that meaningful. How could it, with all the other stuff crammed into the already over-long story.

Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom may serve its purpose in giving us the Cliff Notes version on this influential man, but it misses some opportunities. The picture focuses on his struggle itself, instead of on why he went through what he did. It's all in there, but that's the problem. By trying to include everything, nothing really works all that effectively. We're left with an overview of this man's life, instead of really getting to know or understand who this man was.

Genre: Biography, Drama, History

Run Time: 2 hours, 19 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Deon Lotz, Fana Mokoena, Tony Kgoroge

Directed by Justin Chadwick (The First Grader, The Other Boleyn Girl)

Opens locally on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2013 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

Subscribe above for email alerts of all movie reviews and news, and follow me on Twitter, @tomsantilli and at TomSantilli.com.

How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time
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