Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, is embraced warmly by "Mandela and de Klerk," an interesting new Showtime film that depicts both the secret chess game purportedly behind his release from 27 years in prison in 1990 and a bit of the post-apartheid period that ushered in his historic administration.
Former South African President Frederik W. de Klerk (Michael Caine) is presented here as a politician hugged by history, Mandela (Sidney Poitier) as a revolutionary-turned-statesman who makes history.
Poitier is especially persuasive in re-creating the personal charisma, quiet authority, regal bearing and majesty of the public Mandela, but is obviously guessing about the private Mandela. Caine's De Klerk, on the other hand, is a professional politician whose greatest feat is knowing when to fold a hand he realizes is hopeless.
Succeeding the more rigid P.W. Botha as president and preceding Mandela in office, it was De Klerk, the pragmatist, who released Mandela, and the movie is never more vivid or entertaining than when showing their private haggling over a release date. Surprisingly, Mandela is the one who wants it delayed, to give his wife, Winnie (Tina Lifford), and other supporters more time to prepare for his liberation.
This comes in the last section of this Joseph Sargent-directed, Richard Wesley-written story, which has much more energy than earlier, more static segments that chronicle the remarkable influence Mandela has on his own party, the ANC, and the white Pretoria government during his years of imprisonment.
All of this is subject to some skepticism when it comes to details, however, in that almost certainly some dialogue has been made up. Nor is there any way of knowing whether this account will differ significantly from a scheduled film by South African producer Anant Singh based on Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
Although filmed in South Africa, Showtime's version of history has been endorsed by none of the principals. It doesn't shy from violence, depicting not only white-on-black atrocities, but also the fiery "necklacing" of suspected black collaborators by other blacks, lethal acts that outrage Nelson but are endorsed by the controversial Winnie.
"Mandela and de Klerk" periodically eavesdrops on the Mandelas' dying marriage, but ultimately begs off, letting Winnie bow out magnanimously at her husband's inauguration with one of those you-threw-me-out-but-I-still-love-ya-hon smiles.
De Klerk is also portrayed as relatively benign, even though he was publicly accused by a notorious apartheid assassin last year of knowing about death squads that terrorized blacks during that era. De Klerk denied the charges, although insisting to a Cape Town commission that blacks had "benefited enormously" from the white regime's policies.
The apartheid oppression has vanished, but not the challenges facing Mandela and a nation still in uncertain transition. The film ends with Mandela ascending to power, big problems behind, big ones ahead.
* "Mandela and de Klerk" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.