Political thriller builds to a suspenseful ‘Endgame’
In South Africa, a race is under oppression, lashing out violently against the harsh constraints placed upon it. In the midst of these clashing sides, one man is drawn into the events. These are the ingredients for one of the yearâ€™s most compelling films.
No, not District 9. Iâ€™m talking about Endgame.
The latest film from Pete Travis, who directed the lackluster Vantage Point, Endgame is a thriller based on events from the end of the South African apartheid.
In 1985, as Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) is locked up in prison, Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller) is sent by his company, Consolidated Goldfields, to organize secret negotiations in England between the white Afrikaner government and the African National Congress. Leading the representatives of each side, respectively, are Professor Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt) and director of information Thabo Mbeki (Chitwetel Ejiofor).
Apartheid is a crumbling policy, and the main goal of both sides is to control the endgame. Will South Africa explode in violence or is there a middle ground that can be reached?
Endgame is a wonderful example of a modern-day thriller. Rather than fabricate conspiracies or plots, Travis sticks to the true events of the negotiations, using the mutual mistrust to build tension and suspense. Even to those who know South African history, the film is never predictable.
Historical events have a tendency to be adapted into stifling, emotionally bland films, but Endgame breaks that trend. The events portrayed in the film are ones in which fear, anger and hope play key roles. The film does not shy away from these feelings, but embraces them. As a result, it creates one of the most compelling and engaging narratives in the past year.
The negotiations between the two parties compose the crux of the story, but Travis avoids letting it devolve into mundane boardroom conversations. Both sides have plans, along with prejudices and fears. For the government to ease back on its tactics would mean an end to their political power; for the ANC to halt its terrorist attacks would be seen as surrendering to the powers that be.
Each party struggles not only to work with each other, but with their own allies. Mbeki works to stop violent reprisals from the ANC that could undermine the talks, while Esterhuyse faces threats from extremist Afrikaners, all the while being forced to report on the negotiations to the head of government intelligence, Dr. Niel Barnard (Mark Strong), who also is working on breaking Mandelaâ€™s resolve.
Endgame relies heavily on its cast to deliver the tension and drama, and the actors do not disappoint. Hurt and Ejiofor immerse themselves in their roles, both perfectly mastering their South African accents. Ejiofor in particular shines as Mbeki, a man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders and is constantly on the verge of failing. The chemistry between Esterhuyse and Mbeki feels real, and the two develop a respect for each other over time.
Strong, who has proven to be a master at playing villains and shady individuals in Sunshine and Body of Lies, maintains a captivating and chilling presence as Neil.
Even the supporting actors shine. Peters captures the serene determination of Mandela, fighting doubt and temptation while being cut off from the ANC. Derek Jacobi gives a strong, brief performance as Youngâ€™s boss, whose ultimate motives for organizing the negotiations are shrouded in secrecy.
After the gimmick-heavy Vantage Point, Endgame has a much more grounded style. The film relies not on shock twists or sudden scares, but on a slow burn of tension, which flares up into pulse pounding car chases across the country side and marketplace attacks. This is truly an edge-of-your-seat film.
Although it is a look at the end of apartheid, Endgameâ€™s themes hold weight in todayâ€™s world. The film is a powerful example of the benefits of overcoming fear and extremism to pursue compromise. The questions of national security versus oppression and terrorism versus freedom fighting can be applied to the Iraq war. Endgame is both a brilliant historical thriller and a topical look at the power of compromise.
These days, thrillers tend to include big explosions or convoluted conspiracies. Endgame is a prime example of a thriller that is twice as compelling and suspenseful without those tropes.
In a year of giant robots, alien invasions and over-the top-action films, the realism, drama and slow-burning tension in Endgame are not only powerfully compelling but also a fresh breath of relief.