"Gandhi" is good, but not great, because director Richard Attenborough treats it like a sacred cow. The result is unenlightened, purified biography, some three hours and an intermission long.
The film imparts little of Gandhi or Hinduism, the faith that so influenced him: Though Mahatma means "great soul," Gandhi is without spirit. Even India's vital life force is hemmed in by historical framing. Ravi Shankar's expressive sitar in the score tells more than all the vistas panned and the 300,000 extras deployed.
It took Attenborough 20 years to get to "Gandhi." Then he found his star -- Ben Kingsley, a half-Indian who looks remarkably like the holy man. Kingsley's a wonderful actor caught in a constricting role. We first see him as a young Mohandas Gandhi in 1893, a lawyer kicked around by the bigots of South Africa. He fights the color barrier against Indians, then comes home to find himself a revered man. In time, Gandhi, a celibate vegetarian, becomes the most influential man in the land. But his charisma, as presented here, is hard to understand.
Yet Gandhi was an enigmatic paragon. He brought the British to their knees by fasting instead of fighting. More importantly, he made "humans" of the Untouchables, lowest of the Hindu castes. When he died, he weighed less than 100 pounds and his worldly goods were worth less than two dollars. Minutiae make a man. But "Gandhi" doesn't give us personal detail. We must read biographies on our own for that. We don't have a life story, but a biased history -- cameos pinned to crowd scenes, a life that touches history wearing white gloves.
However, the acting is the finest. The British, including Sir John Gielgud, are superbly arrogant at their claret and cricket. There's one casting oddity, though -- Candice Bergen's appearance late in the film as photographer Margaret Bourke-White comes as a shock. She's good, but discordant.
"Gandhi," sad to say, is not the second greatest story ever told.