Surely, few 20th-century figures are more deserving of respect than Nelson Mandela, who withstood nearly three decades in prison for refusing to bend his beliefs in the equality of men, and went on to become the first president of a democratic South Africa.
At the same time, few men have been so mythologized in their own time, which helps explain what makes "Mandela and de Klerk" (airing at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Showtime) a valuable, if flawed, piece of filmmaking.
Flawed, because it doesn't delve into the "de Klerk" half of its title nearly as deeply as it lays open the "Mandela" half. Flawed because of its uneasy melding of newsreel and movie footage. Flawed because Michael Caine just can't muster the appropriate gravity to portray F.W. de Klerk, who risked political suicide by going against centuries of tradition to call for free elections in his country.
But "Mandela and de Klerk" succeeds in humanizing Mandela, in making him seem more a man and less a god. And it does that without making him seem any less worthy of the adulation the world has thrown his way.
As Mandela, Sidney Poitier is his usual commanding self. With a gaze that's nothing so much as a human tractor beam, and a voice so carefully modulated that every sentence sounds like a work of art, Poitier's Mandela is a man on a mission. As he says in the film's opening, where he's about to be sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of treason, he's committed to the idea that the races should be treated equally -- apartheid or no apartheid -- and is prepared to die for that belief.
He's also prepared to play hardball, do a little old-fashioned horse trading, even go against the wishes of his brethren, if that's what it takes.
When de Klerk assumes power, the new president creeps slowly toward free elections. One of his first steps: He releases Mandela from prison after 27 years. The scene where Mandela and de Klerk lock horns over the precise circumstances of Mandela's release is an example of political horse-trading at its most refined.
It's an uneasy alliance that de Klerk and Mandela set up. They respect, but don't exactly trust, each other. Neither wants to see his country engulfed in civil war, but neither wants to sell his people out in the name of peace, either.
A strong supporting cast includes Tina Lifford as Winnie Mandela, and Ben Kruger as a white jail guard who befriends Mandela and helps him circumvent the government censors.
"Mandela and de Klerk" could have used more interaction between its principals. Mandela's endurance and charisma have been well-documented; the negotiations between him and de Klerkhas not.
Still, the story of Nelson Mandela is one that can never be told often enough. And having Sidney Poitier do the telling makes the story even better.
Pub Date: 2/15/97