I got around to seeing a movie in the theaters this week! A rare treat! And a special treat at that, because it was a really, really, really, really good one. Really.
The Last King of Scotland was my choice. It's the story of the rise of the very-real Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as told through the eyes of a fictional, idealistic doctor that stumbles into the ruler's inner circle. I was especially interested in the film because I knew so little about Amin. I like my history lessons peppered with inaccuracies and movie glamour, thank you very much.
As if you haven't heard this from every Oscar-crazed media outlet since the film's release in late 2006: Forrest Whitaker's performance as despot Idi Amin is reason alone to watch this film.
Putting aside the comparisons to the real Amin (who, as I've mentioned, was virtually unknown to me), Whitaker takes a mass murderer and makes him charismatic and sympathetic. While there is obviously no excuse for the genocide that he committed to place and keep himself in power, we as viewers are given sufficient data to see his motivations (albeit surely fictionalized). We almost feel bad for Amin in his intense rage at the betrayal of his closest advisers, and that is all Whitaker. He gives a soul to one of the most soulless men of the twentieth century.
In the heyday of Whitaker's critical praise and so-deserved Oscar nomination, the rest of the cast seems to have fallen through the cracks. However, there is a uniform, elevated level of performances. James McAvoy (also known as Mr. Tumnus, the only interesting part of last winter's Chronicles of Narnia movie) plays the protagonist, Dr. Garrigan. He makes believable the character that heads to Africa to help for all the wrong reasons. Gillian Anderson, nee Scully, plays the frustrated good-doctor's-wife to a tee. Kerry Washington (from that other biopic, Ray, and from that regrettable Fantastic 4 debacle) is [one of] the oppressed [wives] of Amin, a woman that finds a sort of simultaneous salvation and damnation in the arms of the young doctor. It's all great.
I can see why this film got the acting nomination but failed to get the best picture nod. This (like, in my opinion, most biopics) is definitely an actor's movie. As a rule, most lives worthy of telling onscreen (except for that of John Malkovich) follow one of two sequences: "From rags to riches" or "The rise and fall of..." This film falls firmly into the latter category, although it does manage to avoid some of the more cliched trappings by being told through a fictional third-person narrator. Still, because it's trying to tell a true story of a rise and fall, the pacing is uneven, with the ass-end of the film loaded with most of the film's pertinent action.
See it. Whitaker's Oscar is pretty much the only sure-thing at this year's Academy Awards ceremony (or, depending on how you look at it, it's pretty much the only potential upset). While the film is not the greatest, the acting is all-around outstanding. And hell, maybe you'll even learn something while you're there. Or see a cow get shot for the first time since O Brother Where Art Thou?. Really, there's all kinds of reasons to see it.