It’s the late 1980s in South Africa. The most important political prisoner of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela (a miscast Clarke Peters), is being readied for his release as brutal violence and unrest are reaching a boiling point. Realizing that civil war is very bad for its African interests, a powerful English gold trading firm sends a conscientious PR flack (Jonny Lee Miller) to set-up secret negotiations. Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), a centrist Afrikaner academic, is dragooned into going into those negotiations to act as a spy for the brutal neo-fascist white supremacist apartheid regime. Eventually, however, he finds himself actually forging common ground and heroically comes clean to the leader of the ANC delegation, future South African President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwitel Ejiorfor).
Unfortunately, director Pete Travis (“Vantage Point“) tries to make what actually should be a rather traditional PBS production into an over-amped action thriller, despite the reality that the real “action” of this story amounts to several white guys and black guys sitting around talking. Travis’s disinterest in the actual content of the story, his irritating and pointless reliance on jarring editing and sound effects, and a hideous audio mix which often makes the dialogue impossible to understand without turning up the volume to painful levels, destroys the inherent drama of the story as well as strong performances from some great actors. It’s a crime because, “Invictus” notwithstanding, the story of how apartheid ended without the catastrophic bloodbath the world fully expected still demands to be told on screen.