Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Movie List: The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Film: The Last King of Scotland
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Oscar nominations: 1 (Best Actor*; Forest Whitaker)
*denotes win


Dictators, you may have noticed, aren't usually universally reviled until after they've received their power. The name "Adolf Hitler" nowadays has the power to make even the kindest of people spit vile venom about him, but there was once a time when he was the savior of Germany, a man that German loved and admired, while the rest of Europe looked nervously at his militaristic expansion of the nation's borders and others, such as the United States, generally ignored him. Granted, he was eventually hated by his people, and after his death he became the Voldemort of Germany, as everyone did their best to avoid mentioning him. But no dictator rises to such absolute power by looking like an asshole; he's a charmer, with an expansive cult of personality and the admiration of every member of his country for promising, usually, to improve his nation and make it among the world's elite (see: Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Fransisco Franco). 

The Last King of Scotland, documentarian Kevin MacDonald's first narrative feature, is a fictional study of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, a military general who rose to power on a promise of a stronger Uganda and pan-African solidarity (the film's title comes from Amin's self declared moniker of the same name). Told from the perspective of Amin's Scottish-born doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), Amin (Forest Whitaker) rises to power and sets about committing a number of atrocities, including human rights violations and political killings. But as Garrigan, who at first enjoys being Amin's doctor, begins to uncover what exactly he's doing, he desperately tries to flee the country, but Amin is always watching.

The script, written by Peter Morgan & Jeremy Brock and adapted from Giles Foden's novel, is bipolar, as it tries to tell two different stories. One is about Idi Amin, the other is about Garrigan and his illicit love affair with Kay (Kerry Washington), Amin's third wife. This romance plot could have been something interesting, but Garrigan is never fleshed out into a really interesting character, and his whole plot ends up being boring and cliche. MacDonald's direction is more effective, bring his documentary-trained sensibilities to create some truly terrific images; it also helps that he was able to shoot on-location in Uganda. There's an unexpected amount of graphic violence in the film as well, which works well to demonstrate the monster that Amin was.

But the best part of the film, and in all honesty its saving grace, is Whitaker's powerful, Oscar-winning performance as Amin. He perfectly conveys the frightening charisma that Amin possessed, and flits deftly between joy and rage, sometimes combining the two to further enforce his facade. When he's in ruthless mode, Whitaker makes Amin a stone-faced killer, a man who is in no way bothered by the acts that he is committing against his people. Its impossible to take your eyes off of him any time he's on screen, and, not coincidently, the film fires on all cylinders whenever he shows up. 

Its not that The Last King of Scotland is a bad film; its good, but deeply flawed. But its worth seeing for Whitaker's great performance. Now can someone get him out of that awful Criminal Minds spinoff?

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