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'The Last King of Scotland' is as dishonest as its subject

The Last King of Scotland

Studio:Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox Interna
Director:Kevin MacDonald
Cast:Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney
Screen Writer:Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, Joe Penhall, Giles Foden
Music Score:Sam Southwick, Abi Leland
Release Date:2006
Our Rating:

There’s an amusing and telling aside in General Idi Amin Dada, Barbet Schroeder’s remarkable 1974 documentary about the titular Ugandan president, in which the general embarks on a short swimming race with a few of his comrades. They jump in the water and swim in straight, fair lines toward the other end of the pool, except for Amin — he darts to the right halfway through, cutting off two swimmers so he can thrash his way to the wall first.

He celebrates his victory by laughing and exclaiming, “I won,” and the other racers soon join in the merriment. The scene may be a minor moment in the film, which is an otherwise subtly confrontational tête-à-tête between Schroeder and Amin, but it understatedly captures the dictator’s duality as simultaneous bully and charmer.

The same scene is re-enacted in The Last King of Scotland, the sort-of Hollywood biopic about the general opening Friday, except this time Amin (Forest Whitaker) leaps into the pool a second before everybody else, immediately telling us he’s a cheat.

Why get it wrong when it’s already right on camera?

Presumably because the new version signifies a character trait in a more obvious manner. This may seem like a minute falsification of history, but it speaks volumes about the difference between the nuanced documentary and the grandiose studio product, indeed between astute observation and rank manipulation in general.

General Idi Amin Dada may be dry and a bit laborious, but it never feels dishonest or agenda-pushing. It examines the man, a man who caused the disappearances of at least 80,000 — some say up to 300,000 — of his own people, as complex and full of contradictions, a politically savvy leader who maintains an outward affability while committing acts of tyranny so heinous it’s almost unbelievable. Between his secret murders and mass graves and his denunciation of Israel and staunch belief in Nazi propaganda like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he seems like a horrifying hybrid of Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a dash of George W. Bush’s smug charm and kooky confidence that God is speaking through him.

With the situation ripe for shedding light on today’s murderous dictators through the conduit of Amin, the timing for a fictionalized look at the tyrant is perfect. But in The Last King of Scotland and through director Kevin MacDonald’s contrived broad strokes, Amin is at first a sitcom character on the receiving end of sophomoric fart jokes, then a despicable villain. Unlike General Idi Amin Dada, here the dictator’s two faces are mutually exclusive ones, fitting an accessible structure and rarely overlapping. (Like him, then hate him … what suckers we spectators are.)

In fact, the only nuance comes from Forest Whitaker’s astonishing, Oscar-worthy transformation into the chubby general, besting his own admirable metamorphosis into a drug-addled Charlie Parker in Bird. With expressive, twitching eyes — one lazy, the other bulbous — and an uncanny skill in mimicry of voice and physical gestures, Whitaker channels the ambiguity of Schroeder’s film simply by reprising its subject’s signatures, adding depth to a script that has little.

Because MacDonald’s film is less about Amin and more about Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a kind-hearted Scottish doctor who serendipitously becomes Amin’s personal physician and unravels a web of corruption, the film feels less like a dissection of the dictator himself and more like The Constant Gardener. Add Nicholas’s go-nowhere, screen time–devouring attraction to a fellow doctor played by Gillian Anderson and a slew of “tasteful” (read: spineless) cutaways from violence and you’ve got the ingredients for a perfectly mediocre Oscar-season message movie that tries hard to be Quality with a capital Q, bold-faced and underlined.

Schroeder had an inherent advantage in receiving the full participation and access to the actual guy. Still, his film simply presents Amin, and it doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. MacDonald could learn a thing or two from this modus operandi, starting by cleaning up that swim race.
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