We’ve seen Forest Whitaker do this on one of the best shows on television, "The Shield." As an internal affairs lieutenant whose methods are just as unorthodox as those of the rogue detective squad he’s investigating, Whitaker has been mesmerizing in his volatility. He can sidle on up to you as the sweetest, gentlest giant one minute, then fly into a vicious rage the next. He makes both sides of this complicated figure feel frighteningly real.
And so on the big screen, his emotional depth and range are even more stunning in one of the year’s best movies, "The Last King of Scotland." This is not hyperbole. This is how good Whitaker is: he actually makes you feel sorry for Idi Amin. The suggestion already has been duly bandied about so we may as well acknowledge it here, as well: his performance is nothing short of Oscar-worthy.
Under the direction of Kevin Macdonald ("Touching the Void"), making his feature debut, Whitaker gets plenty of room to demonstrate the vastly contradictory facets of the larger-than-life Ugandan dictator. Macdonald uses many of the same technical tactics from his documentary background, making you feel as if you are there, showing you how easy it might have been to be seduced by this charismatic character who also happened to be a cold-blooded killer.
Functioning as our guide through this shadowy world is James McAvoy, starring as Nick Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who becomes Amin’s personal physician, then his captive adviser. But Macdonald and screenwriters Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan and Joe Penhall, working from Giles Foden’s novel, don’t just depict Nick as the innocent in this fictionalized tale.
When he lands in the African country fresh out of medical school _ and just as President Obete is being overthrown in a coup _ his intentions initially seem altruistic. One look around the waiting room, packed with poor families and echoing with the din of crying babies, shows him he has his work cut out for him _ and the look on his face is one of many examples of Macdonald allowing an actor to speak volumes with just a subtle glance.
But then Nick’s advances toward a married colleague (Gillian Anderson, doing a perfect British accent) reveal the first glimmers of a darker side. And when he meets Amin during a roadside confrontation, he captures the dictator’s attention by proving he can match him in confidence.
It doesn’t take long for Amin to persuade Nick to abandon his mission and come work for him. And who could blame him? Life at the palace is good, a non-stop orgy of women and drink, a celebration of wretched excess with Amin as its charming, generous host. It would be hard for anyone to turn that down.
The proximity to power becomes intoxicating, but Nick also gets close enough to Amin to see his weaknesses, his insecurities, his paranoia _ and at times become the victim of them. The man who ultimately would be responsible for the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans in the 1970s often comes off as nothing more than an overgrown child, throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants.
Whitaker vividly shows us this element of Amin’s personality, as well, as he trembles and sweats in his ornate bedroom, his eyes bulging with fear. It’s a far cry from the man who’s arrogant enough to claim he knows exactly when he’s going to die, and how.
Soon Nick is giving Amin advice on more that just his health, but on policy and media manipulation. He likes that, too _ and he likes Amin’s beautiful third wife (Kerry Washington), though their secret relationship will provide some plot twists that make "The Last King of Scotland" a little too implausible as it reaches its harrowing conclusion.
That’s the main sensation that you’ll have walking out of the film _ that you witnessed something harrowing. And sexy and thrilling and even fun. But mostly it’s just scary as hell, with a hell of a performance from an actor who, despite excellent work in films like "Bird" and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," has too long been overlooked. Until now.
Three and a half stars out of four.