Idi Amin, the military dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is almost a poster child for psychotic government butchery. He is more often seen as a symbol of power run amok rather than an actual person. The Last King of Scotland makes a concerted effort to show how a man like Amin could have achieved his position and the lure he may have had to those close to him.
Forest Whitaker swept the awards season (including winning his first Oscar) for playing Amin as a charming man-child undone by his own insecurities and fears. Appearing first as a charismatic speaker and gregarious man-of-the-people, Amin, fresh from the military coup that brought him to power, offers a job as his personal physician to Nicholas (James McAvoy), a Scotsman working as a doctor in the poor villages to avoid the stultifying life in his parent’s home. Nicholas is a fictional character inserted into Amin’s world to represent those sucked in by the cult of personality who slowly realize they are in bed with the wrong man.
When this realization hits Nicholas, his attempt to go home is blocked by Amin who doesn’t want to give up his “closest advisor.” Nicholas has seen behind Amin’s curtain, but Whitaker still dazzles, appearing reasonable and eager to please even as the bodies of enemies mount up around the country. Nicholas consoles himself in a relationship with Amin’s third-wife, Kay (Kerry Washington), who shares with Nicholas the attraction/fear that those close to Amin feel.
Whitaker’s performance as Amin is the driving force for the movie. He presents a completely unpredictable but ultimately fascinating person. Unfortunately, while McAvoy does well as Nicholas, he doesn’t command the screen like Whitaker and you keep waiting for Amin to return. Nicholas is actually the more prominent character, everything is seen through his eyes, but when Amin is not present the movie is a pretty standard thriller of a man trying to escape from a villain. This villain just happens to be a real dictator rather than a fictional super-villain.
Director Kevin McDonald has previously helmed documentaries and that experience strongly informs the look of the movie. Especially when Amin is present, there is a handheld feel to all the camera work. McDonald makes it seem we are right in the room with Amin as he either charms or blusters. When Amin is not around, the movie doesn’t carry quite the same heft.
It was not for nothing that Whitaker received accolades for his performance. He’s a real figure who is shown in a new light without being particularly sympathetic to a mass murderer. This an informative and entertaining movie that occasionally slows down when it strays into standard thriller territory.
The Last King of Scotland is like many one-disc DVD releases, nothing too special but certainly no disgrace. It has all of the basic things any DVD release of a major movie should have. Director Kevin McDonald provides a commentary track and, not unlike the DVD as a whole, it’s neither thrilling nor boring, falling comfortably in the middle. He varies from talking about the performances, various scenes, and the real events in Uganda that are depicted in the movie. Considering the guy is a director and not a professional speaker, he acquits himself pretty well.
After the commentary, there are a few standard featurettes. The longest and most interesting is called “Capturing Idi Amin” and combines interviews with the filmmakers and actors with some background about Uganda and Idi Amin. Some of the extras and actors talk about living under Amin in the 1970’s, including one extra whose father was killed by Amin’s death squads. It’s almost better to watch this prior to the actual movie as it gives the viewer a good background while viewing the film.
The other two featurettes are much shorter and focus on the big draw, Forest Whitaker. One discusses his performance as Amin and what he tried to bring to the role. The other is from the Fox Movie Channel and discusses the casting process in finding an actor to play Idi Amin. This is probably the more interesting of the two, but it’s annoying not to see any screen test footage (reportedly Whitaker did one test of a post-assassination attempt melt down that sealed him as Amin) or hear who else was considered.
There are the obligatory deleted scenes. The scenes can be viewed with optional commentary by McDonald. Finally, there are a couple of trailers. Again, the sum total doesn’t wow the viewer, but it’s a workmanlike group that should be considered the minimum for any one-disc release. The draw here is the lauded Whitaker performance with everything else falling right in the middle of the road.