Picks and Pans Review: Cry Freedom

updated 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's time to cry mercy from British director Richard Attenborough's sanitized approach to the lives of men who make history. First Churchill, then Gandhi, now Stephen Biko—the black South African leader murdered in police custody a decade ago. More excuses are made for Attenborough's failed films than any in memory. The prevailing line is: He means well. Surely he does. While Attenborough's colleagues churn out teen junk, sexy thrillers and sci-fi escapism, he wrestles with the big issues. This time it's apartheid, white South Africa's legalized racism. As a foe of injustice, Attenborough wants apartheid stopped. As a filmmaker, he chooses the wrong way to make his point: He turns propagandist. Biko, though powerfully acted by Denzel Washington (Dr. Phillip Chandler on TV's St Elsewhere), is a cardboard martyr as projected by Attenborough and his Gandhi screenwriter, John Briley. In denying Biko his human weaknesses, they deny him life. But before this 157-minute film is a third over, Biko is dead, and the focus shifts to Donald Woods, the white South African newspaperman who befriended Biko. Attenborough replaces his black messiah with an Errol Flynn: the dashing Kevin (Sophie's Choice) Kline as Woods. Because he investigates Biko's death, Woods, his wife (Penelope Wilton) and their five children are persecuted; he is restricted to his own home. He then plots to flee the country with a manuscript that will give the world the truth about Biko. If only more of that truth had seeped into the movie. Maybe there is more box-office clout in a white man escaping South Africa than in a black man trying to save it. So as Biko dims in the memory, we see the Woods family's tediously staged flight to London. The chase has no more tension than Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp kids evading the Nazis at the end of The Sound of Music. Attenborough may win some Oscar nominations for noble intentions, but it's hard to see how he will affect world opinion when his movie grenade against apartheid turns out to be made of marshmallow. (PG)

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