Some biopics of towering historical figures focus on rather narrow episodes of the subject's life (see Lincoln, The Queen, and so on). But Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opts to cover nearly all of Nelson Mandela's life as a lawyer, anti-apartheid political leader, and South African icon.
Normally this approach falters, simply because that breadth almost always means sacrificing depth in a two- or three-hour film. A person's entire life—full of episodes, rabbit trails, and a tangled web of complexity—does not always translate cleanly to a focused, insightful feature-length screen portrait. The best biopics often focus on one period in a person's life to showcase their character and complexity—the early career of Johnny Cash (Walk the Line), Truman Capote's writing of In Cold Blood (Capote), or Nelson Mandela's recognition that the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an opportunity to help heal his post-Apartheid nation (Invictus).
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), takes the long-view approach to the life of Mandela (Idris Elba), as its title implies. Based on his 1994 autobiography of the same name, Mandela covers about 50 years of the man's life, from his childhood as a herd boy in South Africa's rural Cape region, to his rise as an Apartheid resistance leader. Mandela was then a prisoner for three decades before ascending in 1994 to the South African presidency as the nation's first black president, elected in the nation's first fully representative, multiracial election.
In this case the long view approach (mostly) works, given the single-minded focus at its core. Mandela wants freedom for his people. That is what drives him (and the movie). It's a classic movie redemption arc: the oppressed and subjugated in search of freedom and justice. And Mandela's is one of the most compelling of all redemption tales.
How should an oppressed people group—like black South Africans under Apartheid—push back against their oppressors? Should violence be met with violence? Is the path of nonviolent reconciliation too slow and soft?
This is one of the tensions of Mandela—and indeed a tension within Mandela himself. As a young lawyer and activist, Mandela is at first committed to fighting for freedom through nonviolent means. But gradually he becomes more militant and guerilla in his tactics, ultimately resulting in his arrest and imprisonment.
During his long tenure in prison (27 years), Mandela's wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) carries the militant torch and is intermittently arrested and jailed herself. When Mandela is finally released from prison in the early 90s, he's firmly committed to peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. But this is hard for Winnie to take. She's not ready to forgive and reconcile. Justice and retribution are more attractive to her; she's suffered too much at the hands of hate. Eventually this leads to her separation from Nelson.