The great events of history have a tendency to collapse into a few melodramatic snapshots that hardly do justice to the real thing. Just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall was precipitated by a more complex chain of events than Ronald Reagan snapping his fingers at Mikhail Gorbachev, so too apartheid’s end was brought down by more than the stubborn persistence of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Endgame crafts a crackling thriller out of the tangle of crafty maneuvering and happenstance that put a stop to South Africa’s longstanding official segregation.
Based on Robert Harvey’s book The Fall of Apartheid Paula Milne’s script draws heavily from the stranger-than-fiction well. It begins in 1985 with rabbity businessman Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller) stealing through a township that’s on the verge of revolt, looking to meet with representatives of the African National Congress. He approaches a respected professor, Willie Esterhuyse (William Hurt, notching up another of his atrocious accents), who has often criticized the white government’s policies. By 1987, Young achieves his goal: members of South Africa’s white intelligentsia and the ANC sit across the table from each other in a fine dining room at a Somerset estate, ready to start talking. Their focus is not whether, but how apartheid is going to end, and how to handle the transition.
Endgame starkly sets itself apart from other apartheid-era dramas like Catch a Fire and Cry Freedom in a number of ways. For one, though shot with a jittery handheld thriller aesthetic, and even indulging in the occasional chase scene or car bomb, it ultimately sees such action as sideshows to the main event. As indicated by a scene in which a black militant group detonates a bomb in a civilian area, director Peter Travis has little interest in whitewashing the methods of the ANC and its allies. The film also doesn’t waste much breath having its players debate the merits of apartheid. This isn’t the expected story of idealism triumphant, but rather a more nuanced one of pragmatism and survival. No matter what side they’re on, everyone here knows that apartheid’s days are numbered. It’s just a question of keeping the endgame as orderly as possible. They leave the false drama to the journalists.
Just so, the impresario of the conference, Young, isn’t some professional peace-seeker, but rather an employee of a huge mining company that wants to make sure its business concerns aren’t jeopardized by civil unrest. Though spiteful towards the government operatives who try to use him as a spy, Esterhuyse doesn’t take the ANC delegates as allied enemies of apartheid. Rather, he fulminates against their use of violent tactics and admits (in a moment of quite breathtaking honesty) that he and other South African whites fear the end of apartheid because they worry they will be accountable for their sins. On the ANC side, Thabo Mbeki (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor with his customary tightly-wound cool) seems tired of playing the flag-bearing revolutionary and ready to take his place as an elected representative of his people.
Endgame comes closest to hero worship in its depiction of Nelson Mandela (a greyed Clarke Peters), who spends most of the film in prison, where he is allotted increasing liberties by the authorities who are desperate to use him as a calming force for a country rapidly coming apart at the seams. But given Mandela’s historical stature, not to mention his frequent appearance here next to diffident prison guards or manipulative intelligence operatives, it would be difficult for him not to come off as something of a giant.
While abnormally astute in detailing the frustrating give-and-take of the years-long diplomacy that paved the way for majority rule in South Africa, Endgame falters when it comes to showing how the government finally relents. After all the attention given to the delicate relationship between Mbeki and Esterhuyse, they’re deprived of much to do when other, less detailed characters begin making the major decisions. Indeed, the critical moment of reconciliation arrives like a thief in the night, quiet and unexpected. Still, it takes your breath away.