Too often, films about great moments in history get bogged down in their own logistics. The roots of the conflict must be explained, the forces that contributed to it examined, the various players introduced; by the time the action begins, the viewer can be overwhelmed.
So the first remarkable thing about "Endgame," which premieres on "Masterpiece" Sunday night, is how deftly writer Paula Milne sets up the action. We are in South Africa in the final days of apartheid and Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller), who works for Consolidated Goldfields, is desperately trying to set up meetings between members of the African National Congress and members of the National Party to prevent the country from literally tearing itself apart.
As he attempts to convince the black South Africans and the white Afrikaners that it is in their best interest (as well as Consolidated Goldfields' of course) to prevent further revolution, we quickly see the almost impossible situation of peaceably ending a murderous minority rule that has, in turn, created an often ruthlessly violent opposition.
Quickly, however, the conflict, and any hope for a solution, is embodied by two men: Future South African President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the ANC and Willem Esterhuyse (William Hurt), an influential philosophy professor at Stellenbosch University.
Young brings the two together, along with a few other National representatives, for a series of secret talks held in a grand manor house in Somerset, England. Each man has his own blind spots and agenda: Esterhuyse, afraid for his family, agrees to serve as a mole for the head of the National Intelligence Service. Mbeki refuses to concede that any of the violence perpetrated by the ANC has been aimed at civilians.
Yet they are reasonable men, intelligent and humane, who each believe that something must be done to save the country they both love. Back in South Africa, the violence reaches a fever pitch, as does the political villainy. The head of National Intelligence (Mark Strong) attempts to divide the imprisoned Nelson Mandela from the ANC by offering him increasingly lavish quarters and the belief that he is in negotiation with the government, while the head of Consolidated Goldfields (an underused Derek Jacobi) instigates and funds the talks, only to inform Young that should anything go wrong, Young will be the one taking the fall.
But to a certain extent that's all background noise; all eyes are on Ejiofor and Hurt, who each deliver two marvelous performances, powerful and understated, that brilliantly capture how small and discrete the defining moments of history can be.
Reluctant and mistrustful, the two are not impressed with each other's credentials. With his Aryan looks, spectacles and perfect Afrikaans accent, Hurt's Esterhuyse is a modern poster boy of benign oppression. As Mbeki, Ejiofor is prickly in his desperation, determined not to be manipulated into selling out the cause for which he has worked so hard by these men and their fancy teacups.
But piece by piece, the psychological armor required to survive in a country ruled by war is unhitched and discarded, each man taking a dangerous leap of faith simply because it is necessary.
Milne and director Peter Travis are not trying to say that these two men dismantled apartheid or even that the secret talks were the key. In the midst of the talks, hard-line South African president P.W. Botha suffers a stroke and is replaced by Frederik W. de Klerk, who turns out to be more moderate than anyone imagined and eventually agrees to negotiate with the ANC.
Certainly, the talks had an impact, but the extraordinary power of the film comes not from the political outcome or even the welcome reminder that where once tyranny reigned, now it does not. At its very best, television plays the careful miniaturist, showing how a personal decision quietly made or a small step reluctantly taken can alter the course of a life, and a nation.
In a world often dizzy with the Big Picture, the cacophony of events and news and information, that may be drama's most important role. Apartheid didn't end because two men in a big house in Somerset found an unlikely ability to trust each other. But in a larger, more symbolic sense, that's exactly what happened.
'Masterpiece Contemporary: Endgame'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)