The Last King of Scotland

(2006) ** 1/2 R
121 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Kevin MacDonald. Cast: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney.

The Oscar hype machine has roared to life over Forest Whitaker's performance as tyranical Ugandan president Idi Amin, and it's easy to see why. After all, Amin was the man—chronicled so effectively in Barbet Schroeder's Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait—who dubbed himself "His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."

Though Whitaker has always been this good, the flashy new role gives him unique opportunities to strut and fret, and well demonstrates his unique blend of forcefulness and restraint. Given to grand pronouncements about African power and promises of food and services, and wielding a gregarious sense of humor that is its own kind of aggression, Amin acts like a man with something to prove (a symptom, perhaps, of suffering childhood abuse). The actor had nothing to prove to me, but unfortunately, Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland isn't up to Whitaker's robust performance.

Though inspired by real people and events, The Last King of Scotland is very much a historical fiction, based as it is on Giles Foden's novel. Rather than the ins and outs of Amin's regime, the film focuses on the education of an invented, young white doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who in 1970 leaps directly from Scottish med school to Uganda, arriving the day of Amin's coup. Naturally, Garrigan's romantic notions of exotic adventure and international aid will be terrifyingly dashed. Screenwriters Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Jeremy Brock (Driving Lessons) go out of their way to make Garrigan a callow, amoral idiot, which makes the story doubly unpleasant.

After getting some African tail right off the bus, the spoiled child of British imperialism abandons his presumable goal directly to serve those most in need, and allows himself to be seduced into the service of Amin. With no qualms to speak of, Garrigan collects a new suit and a Mercedes on the people's dimes. He takes easily to Amin's flattering labels (the dictator says Nicholas is his closest advisor and, later, like a son to him) and gladly makes excuses for the horrid dictator ("This is Africa. You meet violence with violence—anything else, you're dead"). Faced with the truth, the doctor repsonds, "I'll wait until things get really bad." (Things get really bad when Garrison is stupid enough to rat out one of Amin's lieutenants without knowing the scoop and, worse, bed Amin's wife during a government-sponsored bacchanal.)

A bear of a man, but hardly the teddy Garrigan wishes to see, Amin gives off a warmth that belies his constant, unpredictable threat. Naturally, Amin's generosity darkens into self-serving presumption ("I am the father of this nation"), volatile paranoia, and delusion. In depicting Amin's manic storm clouds, director Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void) seems to think his first narrative feature is Apocalypse Now, and while it does depict an innocent's trip into the dark heart of a madman, Macdonald doesn't have the chops to sell us with sensationalistic bursts of sex and violence.

What's most criminal is the film's dearth of political or emotional sophistication. Graham Greene it's not, and Macdonald's attempts to up the danger quotient with random zooms and general shaky-cam prove he's trying too hard for all the wrong effects (overwrought editing, pandering thriller music, and shock-tactic violence deepen the impression). Meanwhile, we long to plumb Amin's depths and investigate the shifting tides of public opinion—except for Amin and a sainted doctor who's a foil to Garrigan, the Africans are extras. Whitaker's striking work aside, The Last King of Scotland is insipid, obvious movieland history.

[For Groucho's interview with Forest Whitaker, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/2/2010

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

If one keeps in mind that most of The Last King of Scotland was shot on 16mm film, the feature's Blu-ray transfer is all the more impressive. An accurate representation of director Kevin Macdonald's intent, the hi-def transfer here captures the grit, high contrast and film grain of the source material, handling the inherent difficulties with aplomb. There's little doubt that the film will never look better (or more detailed) than it does here; as for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, it is likewise definitive in reproducing for home systems the convincing atmosphere and pulse-pounding music heard in theaters.

The bonus features include a thorough commentary by director Kevin Macdonald, who proves his knowledge of Idi Amin and details the production.

Seven "Deleted Scenes" (12:00 with "Play All" option, SD) come with optional commentary by Macdonald.

The excellent BBC Scotland doc "Capturing Idi Amin" (29:04, SD) includes archival footage of Amin, as well as interviews with Ugandan residents, Macdonald, Forest Whitaker, Steohen Rwangyezi, Ugandan Deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali, youth co-ordinator Chris Rugaba, Abbey Mukiibi, journalist Jon Snow, The Last King of Scotland author Giles Foden, producer Lisa Bryer, Amin's former commander Major Iain Grahame, Amin's education minister Abu Mayanja, Amin's physician Dr. David Barkham, producer Andrea Calderwood, James McAvoy, Michael Wuwayo, Amin's health minister Henry Kyemba, Kerry Washington, and film extras Florence Mabonga-Mwisaka and Joshua Mabonga-Mwisaka.

"Forest Whitaker 'Idi Amin'" (5:59, SD) is a brief promo including comments from Whitaker and McAvoy.

"Fox Movie Channel Presents: Casting Session - The Last King of Scotland" (8:36, SD) swiftly examines the film's casting with Macdonald, Whitaker, Calderwood, and casting director Jina Jay.

Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:17, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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