February 04, 2007

MOVIES: The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)

Fresh out of medical school and horrified at the thought of joining his father's practice, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) heads to Uganda with idealistic dreams of Doing Good. He's been there for only a few weeks when Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) comes to power in a coup. Through a series of circumstances a bit too coincidental and unlikely to be believed, Garrigan becomes Amin's personal physician and, as Amin keeps saying, "one of my top advisors."

The movie has gotten most of its attention for Whitaker's Oscar-nominated performance, which is remarkable indeed, a chilling mix of lunacy and charisma. It's especially surprising coming from Whitaker, who has generally played quiet, repressed, internal men; Amin is loud, boisterous, gregarious, and (when he chooses to be) overtly menacing.

McAvoy has gotten less attention, but his performance is also quite good. Garrigan is a naive young man who's amused by the attention he's getting from the new president, and only gradually does he begin to realize just how dangerous Amin really is; he's even slower to realize that the danger might extend to him personally.

It was one of the oddities of the awards season that Whitaker wound up in the Lead category and McAvoy was pushed for Supporting when they ought to have been the other way around; Last King is most definitely Garrigan's story, and McAvoy is unquestionably the lead. Whitaker's role sits on the edge, I suppose, but I think it really would have fit better in the supporting category.

The movie, I'm afraid, doesn't quite live up to the strength of its two central performances. Once again, we're being told a story about black Africans through the eyes of a heroic white guy, and a fictional white guy at that. It seems to me that there's enough drama in the story of Idi Amin as it actually happened that there's no need to filter it through a layer of fiction. The movie is also fuzzy about how quickly everything happens. From the time Amin came to power to the Entebbe hostage crisis (which happens at the end of the movie) was a bit more than five years; the movie makes it feel like a matter of months.

Two very fine performances make the movie worth seeing, but unless you are (like me) someone who wants to see all of the nominees before the Oscars are handed out, you could wait for DVD for this one.

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