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THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson
Director:  Kevin MacDonald
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  April 17, 2007

“The eyes of the world are on Uganda.”

Film **1/2

Forest Whitaker is the kind of actor whose very presence elevates the material he serves.  I often think of Clint Eastwood’s well-meaning but dissatisfying Bird, a movie I own and still watch from time to time mostly for the pleasure of Whitaker’s performance as Charlie Parker.

The Last King of Scotland is a similar fit.  If not for his well-heralded and Oscar winning performance, there would be little to recommend in this curiously ill-fitting picture.  The very idea of Forest Whitaker playing the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is enough to make you open your wallets and invest.  But the movie is dramatically flawed and unfocused, and spends way too much time caring about a fictional character than with one of history’s most notorious and bloodthirsty thugs.

That fiction character is Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy), a Scottish doctor seeking either adventure or the chance to do some real good.  He spins a globe, his finger lands on Uganda, and he’s off.

He arrives just in time to witness the end of a military coup and the arrival of General Idi Amin (Whitaker) into power.  At first the crowds are warm and enthusiastic, as is Garrigan.  Imin seems like a true man of the people; warm, jovial, and filled with promises of returning Uganda to glory.  So what is it about him that unsettles us so?

It could be partly owing to our own knowledge of history, but really, the power is in Whitaker’s carefully constructed portrayal of the man.  There’s something indescribable about him that keeps us afraid.  He laughs, but there’s danger in his eyes.  He has moments when he seems to snap over absolutely nothing, and then comes back just as quickly.

Garrigan becomes Amin’s personal physician, and his closeness with the dictator helps us to learn that all is not right with the man.  As his thirst for power increases, his paranoia intensifies, leading him to relentlessly hunting down and dispatching anyone he considers an enemy.  And of course, by the time his rule was over, some 300,000 of his countrymen would have paid the ultimate price for it.

There’s so much to say about Amin, and the frustration of the movie is that it says so little.  Director Kevin MacDonald attempts to keep him a someone enigmatic figure, which he already was.  This was a chance to really dissect a madman, but Amin is practically a supporting player in his own story.  The focus on Dr. Garrigan as a character is a poor dramatic choice.  When watching a picture about a terrifying, real life historical figure with tendencies toward psychosis, we don’t want to spend it all learning about some guy who didn’t really exist.  He may have been based on a real person (as I understand), but that’s still no excuse.  Garrigan is not, and never should have been, the focus of the story.

And as the film makes its way toward a huge conclusion, we feel cheated again.  It brings us right up to the famed raid on the airport at Entebbe, which brought about the beginning of the end for Amin, but doesn’t take us there.  Instead, all we get is a footnote on the screen at the end describing what happened and what it meant.  It’s like making a movie about Nixon and leaving Watergate nothing but a pre-end credit scrawl.

As mentioned, Whitaker is the embodiment of Amin, so much so that it’s like seeing the ghost of the dictator come back to life.  His performance is the stuff of legends; a tremendous actor and a sweet guy by all reports delving into the darkest elements of humanity within us all and harnessing the monster inside.  His work in the movie alone is almost enough to merit a recommendation.

Almost…but not quite.

Video ***

Fox’s anamorphic transfer is a good one.  The film is visually ‘hot’, depicting the relentless sun of Africa in virtually every scene.  It makes for some harsh lighting and occasional distortions, but these are artistic choices, and not the limitations of the medium. 

Audio ***

There are plenty of crowd scenes and depictions of general chaos to keep this 5.1 audio lively and dynamic.  In between, it’s mostly a dialogue oriented picture, and the spoken words come through cleanly and with clarity.

Features ***1/2

There is a solid commentary from director Kevin MacDonald, as well as seven deleted scenes with optional commentary.  In addition, there is a look at the real Idi Amin, an interview with Forest Whitaker as he talks about recreating the dictator, a Fox Movie Channel casting special featurette, and a trailer.

Summary:

Idi Amin has thankfully departed our world at last and gone to his eternal reward, but his infamy will live forever in Forest Whitaker’s fully realized performance in The Last King of Scotland.  Check it out to see a truly gifted actor at work, but be warned…so much of what the movie could have been was left on the table.

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