The problem with a film biography of someone like Nelson Mandela (was there anyone like Nelson Mandela?) is the self-imposed tiptoeing required in the Great Man school of moviemaking. The triumphs will be included, stirring and admirable, as they should be. But nobody wants to be accused of hagiography, so dashes of salt will be carefully added—in this case, some less-than-saintly behavior by Mandela with his first wife, or his unabashed early-’60s turn to violent militancy in the face of the loathsomeness of South African apartheid. That sort of balance comes to feel more like chart-making than full-blooded storytelling.
Hemmed in by such worries, to say nothing of the trick of dramatizing the 27-year-period of its hero’s incarceration, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is, sad to report, a routine movie.