The first Forest Whitaker movie I watched was Blown Away, which starred Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, one of two "bomb-maker" movies in 1994 (the other being the more successful Speed). And since then, he's been one of my favourite character actors, chalking up a diverse filmography, although some in largely supporting roles in the movies that made its way here (Panic Room, Phone Booth, etc). This year, he is widely touted to win that Oscar for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
You cannot deny Whitaker's sheer enigmatic presence on screen, even though his size makes him hard to miss. Despite playing a less than savoury character, Whitaker brings about certain charisma to his role, and makes it believable that the masses adore their new leader rising from a coup. Switching from the man who's contended with everything, and earnestly believing he can delivery the country from the doldrums, to one obsessed with power, and consumed by madness, inconsistencies, and suspicion, Whitaker does it all and showcases his spectrum of abilities convincingly.
However, this biopic of sorts comes from the point of view of Idi Amin's personal physician, Scotsman Dr Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), recent graduate, and still finding the meaning to his existence, which led to his arrival in Uganda. McAvoy starred in last year's Chronicles of Narnia as the Faun, and I've seen him as Leto Atreides II in the made for television series Children of Dune. Here, his Garrigan is the confused young adult, suddenly thrust into position of envy, power and privilege as part of the small circle of trust Amin keeps, and is no goody two shoes with his inability to keep his lustful thoughts just thoughts alone.
Based on the novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland (find out why) has a fairly simple narrative from start to end, bringing Dr Garrigan into Uganda just as Idi Amin seizes power, and from a chance meeting, gains Amin's trust and gets appointed albeit reluctantly at first as his personal and family physician, given promises of running hospitals and drafting out health plans for the country. And slowly, as their relationship evolves, Garrigan finds out the truth about the volatility of the dictator, as he battles consequences of his lusty actions, and tries to find a way out of the madness.
It was interesting to note that it was the posse of western powers who installed Idi Amin as ruler, and also the same powers that be who tries to control a live wire to do their bidding, like a puppet master having total control of his puppet, only to have the puppet fight back. A similar relationship between Amin and Garrigan also exist. And when you get too powerful or influential, expect the masters to try and take some drastic measures, using whatever means to meet the end. Lies and deceit, cunningness and strategy to stay alive, all these are experienced by the two men.
Adding some balance to the level of testosterone, there are two supporting female cast in Kerry Washington as one of Amin's wives, and Gillian Anderson as the object of Garrigan's desire. Though both actress had much less to do in the movie, it was indeed a long time since I've seen Anderson in a movie, I believe the last was the X-Files movie. Basically flower vase roles here, with a standard performance which warrants nothing to shout about.
The real star of the movie is nonetheless Forest Whitaker, though is there any statistic saying a vivid performance of a "villain" will warrant less of a chance for an Oscar win? I recall Denzel Washington winning it for Training Day as the villain, but then again, that character is fictional, unlike this one which is based on a real person, whose activities are frowned upon by the west? One figures, but I'm still putting my bets on Whitaker.