d. Pete Travis / 2009 / UK / 102 mins
Viewed on: Channel 4 (UK)
No…not the marvelous Samuel Beckett play, or paleoconservative nutjob Alex Jones’ ravings about a New World Order, but a telemovie that had been getting a bit of a lauding in the lead up to its UK TV premiere last night. Endgame basically traces the story of a series of secretive discussions between high profile Afrikaners and members of the African National Congress that were initiated by English mining executive Michael Young (played here by Jonny Lee Miller, who you should remember as Sickboy in Trainspotting). Attended by future South African president Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Afrikaner academic Professor Esterhuyse (William Hurt), these were the talks that eventually led to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Running parallel is a (possibly superfluous) sub-plot focussing on the continued imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, played by Clarke Peters – who, until he looks over his glasses (sans dollhouse miniatures), is almost unrecognisable from his days as Det. Lester Freamon in The Wire.
An inherent risk with this kind of rigorously accurate dramatization – particularly when it concerns events within the viewers lifetime that they probably heard about via television in the first place – is the questionable characterisation and tone of a story with which the audience is already familiar. In watching these kinds of films, I become acutely aware of the fact that the minutiae of body language and the knowing glance has been heavily manipulated in order to draw our empathy and sell the basic tenets of the narrative. In these kinds of exercises, you also run the risk of overcooking the narrative in an attempt to force an intricate, highly complicated factual story into a neat, simple three-act structure. With Endgame, the casual viewer could easily be excused for assuming that the talks took place over a period of months, not years, and that gaining the involvement of F.W. de Clerk’s brother was as easy as pie.
But I’m being way too harsh. Endgame was a highly watchable chunk of low-level event television, well assembled for the most part, with measured performances that managed to maintain its realistic tone. If anything, it could have provided more of a contrast between the genteel discussions taking place in Somerset and a South Africa on the brink of chaos (something that was hinted at in early scenes, and displayed excellently in a marauding car chase involving Mbeki) – but that would just involve more grumbling.