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STUDIO: Monterey Video
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
- Interviews with cast, director, writer, and producers
A political drama about the end of Apartheid, from the director of Vantage Point
Director: Pete Travis, Writer: Paula Milne, Starring: William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Mark Strong, Clarke Peters
It’s the late 80s and Apartheid tensions in South Africa are reaching a boiling point. A British mining company called Consolidated Gold sees the writing on the wall and knows that they’ll be better off if South Africa is stable, so they task their head of public affairs Michael Young with facilitating talks between prominent Afrikaners and the African National Congress. Young chooses philosophy professor Willie Esterhuyse (Hurt) and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki (Ejiofor) to represent the opposing sides in negotiations geared towards ending apartheid and releasing Nelson Mandela. Dr. Niel Barnard, head of South Africa’s National Intelligence Service, attempts to maintain the status quo by manipulating the involved parties.
A tense political drama about South African Apartheid starring reliably awesome William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor? Lester Freamon from The Wire as Nelson Mandela? And it came out last year? How have I never heard of this movie? The answer is that it’s not a tense political drama, but is in fact an utterly middle of the road and relatively drama-free political drama directed by a man who’s best known for the dreadful Vantage Point. That’s not to say Endgame is terrible, just misguided.
The film’s greatest strengths are its two lead performances. Hurt and Ejiofor make the characters and their relationship believable and compelling, and that’s the most important thing you need to convey the drama of the story. Ostensibly coming from opposing sides of a conflict, they start out wary of each other and reach a point of mutual respect and understanding. Their friendship and the work they do represent, on a microcosmic level, the hope for a united post-apartheid South Africa – without getting too heavy handed about it. Both are fairly muted performances, but Hurt gives Esterhuyse shrewdness and empathy while Ejiofor conveys Mbeki’s passion without going over the top.
Mark Strong was actually born Latimer Prissyfeather but decided a stage name would be more conducive to a career as a leading man
But the events the movie portrays aren’t particularly dramatic, at least not in cinematic terms. They mostly revolve around people having discussions in rooms. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that the movie is done in the Traffic/Syriana (and a dash of Paul Greengrass) style of modern political thriller, probably in an attempt to liven things up, and it feels a bit artificial. The shaky handheld camera, choppy editing and pulsing score are attempts to create the illusion of more thrills than the story actually has. That’s not to say there’s nothing engaging about the story, so perhaps it’s unfair to call it wholly un-dramatic. The stakes are high on both national and personal levels. It’s just not an espionage thriller or anything along those lines.
And that would be fine, but when you reach the conclusion of the film the feeling that washes over you is “that’s it?” Obviously these events are important historically, and that lends the film some weight, but even with the injection of political thriller stylistic conventions the movie can’t make things come alive cinematically. When the resolution comes you feel like there should have been 30 more minutes of conflict and struggle. And even though it’s explicitly clear that the negotiations were important to how things turned out in real life, the movie fails to connect them emotionally and dramatically. It’s men talking in a room, arguing a little, and suddenly other characters we’ve spent little to no time with are the ones to actually pull the trigger.
Part of that insubstantial feeling comes from the fact that a couple characters here are just blowing in the wind. Dr. Niel Barnard (Strong) initially comes off as an overly EEEEEEEVIL movie villain but then ends up having virtually no significance. Strong does a solid enough job with the material but he doesn’t need to be in the film. Michael Young (Miller), the man responsible for arranging the talks, is even more of a non-entity as a character. You get the sense that Young could be an interesting guy in real life, because he does what he does ostensibly to protect the interests of his company Consolidated Gold, but there are hints that his personal motivation is a genuine interest in social justice. In the film, however, he’s a near blank slate who gets the ball rolling and then fades into the background.
This movie taught me that Nelson Mandela was in prison for 13 years (and 4 months) and helped pass the time by building miniature furniture for dollhouses
Even Nelson Mandela isn’t all that necessary to the story at hand. Clarke Peters is sufficiently Nelson Mandela-y in the role, but the film is focused on the lesser known behind the scenes players so he’s relegated to occasional shots sitting in jail looking thoughtful and dreaming of freedom and equality. Granted, there’s a little more to it than that, but for the most part the supporting characters feel like they’re included for historical accuracy but the filmmakers couldn’t find a way to make them important to the film.
Ultimately I think what all this means is that this story just didn’t need to be made into a film. It’s interesting and important, and the film is informative, but not in a way that works dramatically – even though it’s done in the style of Traffic or Syriana. The material would be better served with a documentary or a non-fiction book, of which there are probably many.
The DVD includes a series of 6 extremely dry interviews with the film’s cast, director, producers, and writer, which appear to have been conducted during production. It’s interesting listening to William Hurt talk about his process but the interviews are mostly a bore. The cover is decent looking, but in keeping with most of the other aesthetic choices it gives off a more action oriented political thriller vibe.
Tune in to the Endgame special features to find out the answers to such nagging, important questions as “Why did William Hurt’s character wear a bowtie?”