Perhaps I’m the wrong person to write about Endgame. I didn’t experience the abolition of Apartheid firsthand — by that time, my family had already fled South Africa and taken up residence in Massachusetts. But I experienced Apartheid itself in spades, if you’ll pardon that unfortunate choice of words. It was strange through the eyes of a child — the separate schools, drinking fountains, restrooms, movie theaters — those were the things that children remember the most. But given my activist parents, the absolute, moral wrongness of the system was ingrained at me from a very young age. I may not have fully understood it as I do now, but I knew that this was not the way things were meant to be.
I say all of this because I’m pretty sure that Endgame, the 2009 film directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point), is a very good movie. It’s a steadily paced, gripping political drama that, while it is perhaps a little deceptive in its use of timelines, provides a keen and powerful insight into some of the critical events that have taken a backseat to the powerful imagery of the times. It’s fantastically acted, with a sharp directing hand and solid writing. Unfortunately, given the obscurity of the subject matter and the underrated acting talent involved, it skipped a wide theatrical release altogether in the U.S., and instead can now be found on-demand in certain outlets and via Netflix.
Endgame tells the story of a series of secret meetings that took place over the course of several months, which would eventually lead to the release of the Nelson Mandela, and even more importantly, the fall of Apartheid and the first democratic elections in South Africa. It is perhaps drowned out by the much more well-publicized (and Oscar-nominated) Invictus. While Invictus is a great movie in its own right, Endgame is a solid film that faces a much harsher set of realities. It’s a movie about politics, pure and simple. It has no action scenes, no heroics, no manufactured moments of triumph. Instead, it’s a riveting story of a group of men who realized that the only way that their country would ever survive was if they finally began to simply listen to each other. It sounds simple. I assure you it is not.
Endgame begins with Michael Young (Johnny Lee Miller — Trainspotting’s Sickboy), an employee of Consolidated Goldworks, working on gathering the necessary personalities to participate in a series of secret talks that would take place in a house in the English countryside that would hopefully lead to the creation of a new government. His task seems insurmountable — gather together a group of people of varying races, backgrounds and political parties to begin discussing how to stop decades of racially motivated oppression, violence, torture and tyranny, when neither side agrees with the others’ tactics (even though those tactics sometimes mirrored each other). He gathers an impressive group, but the key players are Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the director of information for the African National Congress (ANC) who is currently living in exile, and Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), a philosophy professor from the renowned Stellenbosch University who is also a member of the Broederbond, the Afrikaner group that originally devised the concept of Apartheid. Each side is deeply distrustful, if not at times outright hostile, towards the other. The situation is made more complexly labyrinthine by the external machinations of the South African head of intelligence, Dr. Niel Barnard (Mark Strong), who is both trying to manipulate the talks, as well as trying to outmaneuver the still-imprisoned Mandela (Clarke Peters) by providing him with glimpses of his freedom.
Let’s take a moment and reflect on this cast: William Hurt, nominated for four Oscars, winner of one (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Clarke Peters, who played the fantastic Lester Freamon in “The Wire” (and will also star in the upcoming “Treme”). Chiwetel Ejiofor, also known as The Operative from Serenity, and who is generally amazing in everything he does. Mark Strong, who has now rocked my world in Sherlocke Holmes, Body of Lies, and RocknRolla. All the while, they’re surrounded by a relatively unknown international cast that is nothing short of rock-solid, including small but effective turns by Timothy West as South African president P.W. Botha and South African actor John Kani as Oliver Tambo, the leader of the ANC. What’s most amazing is that they all hold their own against each other, playing off each other nicely, creating an honest chemistry that is both discordant and engaging. It is a group of men with a common interest, but with uncommon histories, and they demonstrate that with nuanced and subtle performances. There are no hackneyed displays of histrionics or fist-pounding monologues. Instead, it’s 105 minutes of quiet, reflective conversation and debate and scheming and Machiavellian plotting, amidst the backdrop of a country that is slowly tearing itself apart.
Endgame is an in-depth glimpse at history being made in the back rooms. In many ways, it reminded me of the outstanding Frost/Nixon — a stellar film that’s heavy on thought and light on action or antics. I was initially worried by the idea of Pete Travis, who directed Vantage Point — a movie that I haven’t seen, but Dustin loathed. I feared a heavy-handed, overwrought and overly-emotional film that would obscure the subtle complexities of the dying days of Apartheid. It seems as if it were as simple as black and white, and it most decidedly was not. It was about race, certainly, but it was also about the survival of a country that was staggering backward in the midst of a world that was moving forward. It was about understanding that, while those decades-old hatreds and prejudices may still seethe beneath your skin, it was ultimately nothing more than a virus that if left unchecked would destroy everyone, saving no one.
Give Pete Travis credit for doing the smartest thing possible: assemble a dedicated, staggeringly talented cast and let them do the heavy lifting. The story, based on the final chapter (entitled “endgame”) of Robert Harvey’s book “Fall of Apartheid” (and adapted by Paula Milne), is intense and engrossing, and Travis lets his actors tell it with a minimum of directorial flair. The film’s flaws stem from two conflicting problems — it lags a bit in the middle, and yet rushes its ending (in fact condensing an extended period of events into a single day). Regardless, it still manages to be very effective and affecting. Filmed mostly with hand-held cameras and featuring a combination of long, scenic set-up vistas and close-quartered shots focusing on either individuals or dueling participants in a conversation, Travis allows you to feel like you’re in the room without being intrusive. While I’m rarely a fan of the shaky-cam technique, here it provides a level of intimacy that generally works in the film’s favor and allows you to fully grasp the intensity and impressiveness of the acting.
It’s difficult to watch now, knowing how much of a struggle the “new” South Africa has gone through, how much of a factor corruption and political excesses have plagued the post-Apartheid governance. But those obstacles and current complications don’t make the efforts of these impressive few any less integral to the establishment of freedom for all in South Africa. Any government that starts anew in the aftermath of decades of violence, poverty and oppression faces challenges. They are challenges that South Africa still struggles with, but at least they do so now with everyone having the opportunity to have their voice heard. Perhaps that’s a foolish optimism, but one can’t help but admire the achievements of those who worked so hard towards this new era.
I said that I might be the wrong person to review this kind of film because I sometimes worry that I’m simply too close to the subject matter — despite a lack of sentimentality and cloying emotion, I still found myself stirred by it. Overall, Endgame succeeds because of its performances, and because of its steady, unpretentious and unobtrusive direction. It covers a little-known piece of history that paved the way for the more famous historical events to take place. It’s a true political thought piece that requires patience and attention, but that ultimately pays off.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.