Friday, October 06, 2006

The Forest for the Trees

I have always loved Forest Whittaker. He has a remarkable presence and he is a subtle, powerful actor.
Now he plays Idi Amin in the movie The Last King of Scotland, also co-written by Peter Morgan, of The Queen. Sure enough, Forest Whittaker gives a subtle, powerful performance as the Ugandan maniac who killed 300,000 of his countrymen, who is a textbook case of dictator madness and who ended his life without paying for his crimes, sheltered first by Libya and then by Saudi Arabia.
The movie disappointed me. I think some of the creative choices got in the way of the incredible story it tells. It seems that nowadays every movie about Africa has to be shot with a handheld camera that feels as if it has Parkinson's, grainy textures, manic editing and everything looking either yellow or green (The Constant Gardener suffered from the same malady). I can understand these devices are meant to express turmoil and lack of stability and all that, but I wish the filmmakers had more faith in telling the story straight. The turmoil is there, no need to shake it up.
The Last King of Scotland
is the story of a young Scottish doctor, played by the wonderful James McAvoy, who ends up being Amin's personal physician and advisor. His Dr. Garrigan is a young kid who craves adventure, sort of a slightly amoral cad who loves seducing women and who is charmed by Amin, apparently a big charmer himself. Garrigan wears his conscience lightly and goes to Uganda, more to escape his fate as a country doctor in Scotland than because of humanitarian concerns.
I hate to give the story away, so I won't tell you everything that happens, but suffice it to say that it's clear that Garrigan is given plenty of evidence of Amin's dark places from the start but he insists on ignoring it. He prefers to be seduced by the charms and luxuries of absolute power. As my brilliant companion points out, it's rather hard to believe one could be so naive and so brazen at the same time. I mean, who has ever met a dictator and not known that something must be very wrong with him? What dictator on Earth doesn't send shivers down people's spines? You have to live in Jupiter, or perhaps the Scottish countryside, not to guess than an African army general who just came to power through a bloody coup is not quite Florence Nightingale. This film is the story of two charmers, one who may have begun with some sort of a conscience (though I find that hard to believe from Amin) and ends up in utter satanic madness, and one who starts out with none and painfully gets one, as he grapples with the fact that being loyal to a murderous despot is evil.
This movie should be seen for several reasons: 1. To appreciate fantastic acting all around. Whittaker and McAvoy are a wonderful pair of cads. Whittaker is mercurial, his moods change in a split second and it is a very contained performance. He makes the guy extremely likable, manipulative and very comfortable with his own power. Then there is the surprisingly touching Gillian Anderson as the frustrated wife of a saintly doctor and the fantastically creepy Simon McBurney as some sort of a horrible British spy. He rocks.
2. There were a lot of people at the theater that seemed to me to be African, perhaps they were from Uganda. There was some clapping at the end, so it seems that this terrible story was more meaningful to some audience members. It's always good to see stories about real evil human montrosities, lest we forget. We have a bumper crop of them right now, what with Mahmoud and the little North Korean guy and Fidel and some of the crazies who are now leading some former Soviet republics and Chavez, who is a potential lunatic, and Mugabe and who knows who else, and Bush and Cheney, who wish they could just be like that. The more vigilant and intolerant we are of this kind of creeps, the better for us.
There is a lot of interest in this story, and the movie builds up from a fun romp through a beautiful African country to a descent into hell. By the time Garrigan realizes he's aiding and abetting the devil, it is too late. There are many powerful moments in the movie but somehow it operates too much like a movie, with a relentless barrage of music, with certain movie conventions that amp up the excitement, but fail to work as a convincing recreation of what happened in reality.

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