Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Last King of Scotland


There is a scene in the middle of "The Last King of Scotland" featuring Doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) and Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). In this scene, the bulking, ferocious president of Uganda is whining in pain on his bed. He believes someone has poisoned him, despite "knowing" how he is going to die. Garrigan, a lanky white Scot, performs a quick examination. Then, he looks around the bedroom and tells the president to sit on a footstool while he grabs a baseball bat. Moments later, Garrigan puts Amin into a bear hug from behind, and pushes the bat horizontally into Amin's stomach.

The president lets out the biggest, most hilarious fart in movie history. That is the only moment of real levity in this entire film, which details the new government of Uganda tumbling down around a Scottish doctor caught up in the turmoil.

Movies like this, and a spate of other "message" pictures which came out last year, are crucial to the film pantheon. Why? Because they illuminate a part of world history the majority of audiences are not familiar with. This is doubly true considering that the events of "The Last King of Scotland" take place in the 1970s (Amin died in 2003). For a large group of people, Idi Amin is just a name. After watching this movie inspired by true events, he becomes more than that. He is a person, a ruler, a general, a teddy bear, a monster.

The old saying goes that it is crucial to understand history, lest we are doomed to repeat it. We don't get to see Amin's rise to power (that's handled mostly off screen), but we do see the effects of his schizophrenic rule: he suspects his "advisors" of plotting against him, he is unable to stay committed to any one cause, and he cares about how the world sees him over his own people. This is a man punch-drunk on the idea of power, yet when he attains the ultimate power, he has no idea what to do with it. It's an interesting thing to behold as he, through the course of the movie, promotes and demotes Garrigan from a friend to a personal physician to a close advisor and then back down to a nobody, followed closely by the need for Garrigan to tell him what to do.

The end result is a regime predicated on style, not substance. Which, as any rational person can tell you, isn't the way to run a country. Amin, despite whatever faults he developed during his presidency, started saying and doing the right things as far as the audience can tell. His focus was on his country, a president of the people. Amin, as portrayed by multiple award-winner Whitaker, is simultaneously a teddy bear and a monster. In one breath a giant smile can spread across his face at a job well done. In the next, he becomes a paranoid dictator who kills his friends, advisors and even a wife for apparent betrayals. Most other actors can either play cuddly or terrifying, not both. But Whitaker has the body language and the look to do both convincingly, despite the movie truly belonging to McAvoy.

As for McAvoy, he leaves a lesser impression when you exit the theater. Not because of anything he does or doesn't do, but because Whitaker is still forefront in your mind. What McAvoy does--playing a naive, terrified, jubilant--he does well, but it can't compare to Whitaker stealing every scene he's in. The main conflict rears its head late in the movie. During a party, Garrigan shacks up with one of Amin's wives (he has at least three) and, as a consequence, she becomes pregnant--which then takes "The Last King of Scotland" into bizarre territory you're never really sure is real or not. And that's where the movie starts to lose its way.

Not because the script is badly written, because it's certainly a departure from what we've seen before. This isn't a movie about chases or grotesque torture. It's about Amin's deteriorating government and the one man caught in it. Initially, Garrigan is taken by Amin, no more clearly evidenced than in an early-movie rally. Garrigan is completely taken in every way with this man, who he sees as charismatic and a savior. Until Nicholas sees for himself what Amin is capable of (a "talk" with a former advisor turns into murder), he doesn't believe it. Just like last year's "Catch a Fire", "The Last King of Scotland" is about more than just an event; it's about the people caught up in it.

Back to the ending for just a minute. There is a sequence, and I won't go into great detail, in which Nicholas vomits. The way it is edited together caused some confusion. It's edited in a way that makes me wonder if there was some edict against blood and violence in the film. There isn't a reason for it to be put together as is without the decree. Even later on, in the queasy airport torture scene, the "simple" punishment Nicholas endures is similarly bloodless and conspicuously off screen.

the one thing that struck me at the end of the film was one act of stupidity by Garrigan. Had he kept his wits about him (not to mention his sobriety), his downward spiral in Uganda wouldn't have accelerated to break-neck speed. Of course, without this lapse, the climax would need to be altogether different, though I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing. When a character commits an act they (and the audience) know is going to get them in trouble, the credibility of that character is diminished. Horror films are notorious for sending the well-endowed female into a dark house/room/hallway alone only for the killer to attack while the audience collectively screams not to go any further. The same happens here. Immediately before and during this moment of passion, the audience knows no good can come of the liaison. But we're forced to watch it like a car wreck we can't do anything about. There is a minor subplot concerning English operatives in Uganda who try to recruit Garrigan in an effort to assassinate Amin, but it's never really explored or fleshed out; the result is a handful of scenes that don't add up to much in the end.

There is a scene in the middle of "The Last King of Scotland" featuring Doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) and Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). In this scene, the bulking, ferocious president of Uganda is whining in pain on his bed. He believes someone has poisoned him, despite "knowing" how he is going to die. Garrigan, a lanky white Scot, performs a quick examination. Then, he looks around the bedroom and tells the president to sit on a footstool while he grabs a baseball bat. Moments later, Garrigan puts Amin into a bear hug from behind, and pushes the bat horizontally into Amin's stomach.

The president lets out the biggest, most hilarious fart in movie history. That is the only moment of real levity in this entire film, which details the new government of Uganda tumbling down around a Scottish doctor caught up in the turmoil.

Movies like this, and a spate of other "message" pictures which came out last year, are crucial to the film pantheon. Why? Because they illuminate a part of world history the majority of audiences are not familiar with. This is doubly true considering that the events of "The Last King of Scotland" take place in the 1970s (Amin died in 2003). For a large group of people, Idi Amin is just a name. After watching this movie inspired by true events, he becomes more than that. He is a person, a ruler, a general, a teddy bear, a monster.

The old saying goes that it is crucial to understand history, lest we are doomed to repeat it. We don't get to see Amin's rise to power (that's handled mostly off screen), but we do see the effects of his schizophrenic rule: he suspects his "advisors" of plotting against him, he is unable to stay committed to any one cause, and he cares about how the world sees him over his own people. This is a man punch-drunk on the idea of power, yet when he attains the ultimate power, he has no idea what to do with it. It's an interesting thing to behold as he, through the course of the movie, promotes and demotes Garrigan from a friend to a personal physician to a close advisor and then back down to a nobody, followed closely by the need for Garrigan to tell him what to do.

The end result is a regime predicated on style, not substance. Which, as any rational person can tell you, isn't the way to run a country. Amin, despite whatever faults he developed during his presidency, started saying and doing the right things as far as the audience can tell. His focus was on his country, a president of the people. Amin, as portrayed by multiple award-winner Whitaker, is simultaneously a teddy bear and a monster. In one breath a giant smile can spread across his face at a job well done. In the next, he becomes a paranoid dictator who kills his friends, advisors and even a wife for apparent betrayals. Most other actors can either play cuddly or terrifying, not both. But Whitaker has the body language and the look to do both convincingly, despite the movie truly belonging to McAvoy.

As for McAvoy, he leaves a lesser impression when you exit the theater. Not because of anything he does or doesn't do, but because Whitaker is still forefront in your mind. What McAvoy does--playing a naive, terrified, jubilant--he does well, but it can't compare to Whitaker stealing every scene he's in. The main conflict rears its head late in the movie. During a party, Garrigan shacks up with one of Amin's wives (he has at least three) and, as a consequence, she becomes pregnant--which then takes "The Last King of Scotland" into bizarre territory you're never really sure is real or not. And that's where the movie starts to lose its way.

Not because the script is badly written, because it's certainly a departure from what we've seen before. This isn't a movie about chases or grotesque torture. It's about Amin's deteriorating government and the one man caught in it. Initially, Garrigan is taken by Amin, no more clearly evidenced than in an early-movie rally. Garrigan is completely taken in every way with this man, who he sees as charismatic and a savior. Until Nicholas sees for himself what Amin is capable of (a "talk" with a former advisor turns into murder), he doesn't believe it. Just like last year's "Catch a Fire", "The Last King of Scotland" is about more than just an event; it's about the people caught up in it.

Back to the ending for just a minute. There is a sequence, and I won't go into great detail, in which Nicholas vomits. The way it is edited together caused some confusion. It's edited in a way that makes me wonder if there was some edict against blood and violence in the film. There isn't a reason for it to be put together as is without the decree. Even later on, in the queasy airport torture scene, the "simple" punishment Nicholas endures is similarly bloodless and conspicuously off screen.

the one thing that struck me at the end of the film was one act of stupidity by Garrigan. Had he kept his wits about him (not to mention his sobriety), his downward spiral in Uganda wouldn't have accelerated to break-neck speed. Of course, without this lapse, the climax would need to be altogether different, though I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing. When a character commits an act they (and the audience) know is going to get them in trouble, the credibility of that character is diminished. Horror films are notorious for sending the well-endowed female into a dark house/room/hallway alone only for the killer to attack while the audience collectively screams not to go any further. The same happens here. Immediately before and during this moment of passion, the audience knows no good can come of the liaison. But we're forced to watch it like a car wreck we can't do anything about. There is a minor subplot concerning English operatives in Uganda who try to recruit Garrigan in an effort to assassinate Amin, but it's never really explored or fleshed out; the result is a handful of scenes that don't add up to much in the end.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Forest Whitaker is a great actor. We have been talking about his recent star on the Hollywood walk of fame over at Highbrid Nation. I've been a fan for years and I'm happy to see him getting the credit he deserves.