Tall tales that shadow history

‘The Last King of Scotland’ favors dramatic narrative over historical events

Michael Garberich

If you’ve seen Forest Whitaker’s typecast persona as the oversized, self-effacing moralist in “Ghost Dog” or “Phone Booth,” you’ll understand why he’s receiving praise en masse for his latest onscreen embodiment as Uganda’s tyrannical president of the 1970s, Idi Amin.

Whitaker is a large man. A very large man. But his screen presence has rarely matched his stature. With “Scotland,” however, director Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”) presents him in every menacing low angle imaginable to evoke the fragile temperament of a man-child who ignores his diplomatic responsibilities for a type of decadence reminiscent of Dirk Diggler’s Californian foray in “Boogie Nights.”

It’s too bad his opposite, young Scottish doctor and Amin’s eventual personal physician, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), is given the majority of the attention.

Call it the constrictions of film’s seeming necessity to narrate, or blame it on the source material from which it was taken (besides its basis on real events, it’s also adapted from a novel by Giles Folden). But Whitaker’s indelible performance can’t cover “The Last King of Scotland’s” all-too generic story.

Fresh out of medical school and disenchanted by the prospect of working with his doctor father, McAvoy’s Garrigan plays “spin the globe” and vows to go to the first place his finger lands. He passes on Canada, but his second attempt points his index finger at Uganda.

Cue the familiar African safari music and you can imagine the rest. Recent grad wants to help humanity, change the world, in sum, to make a difference; finds work, sex and in an improbable sequence of chance, happens upon a father figure and world leader who takes a liking to him and adopts him as his own.

Opportunity leads to conflict. Conflict is smoothed by resolution. Fade to black. Roll the credits.

It’s the hero quest archetype articulated in 1970s Uganda.

Granted, the film is well articulated. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s washed out look and Alex Heffes’ sublimating electro-guitar soundtrack effectively, albeit predictably, capture the era. The set design and costuming evocatively contrast the impoverished countryside with the George Jung-does- “Blow”-rock-star set of Amin’s estate.

It gets grisly in the way Brian De Palma’s “Black Dahlia” got grisly: with a mutilated corpse. And, from there, tensions rise as Amin’s genocidal crimes loom over his charismatic image.

But the film’s greatest atrocity is inflicted on history. During the June 27, 1976, Palestinian Liberation Organization’s hijacking of an Air France Airbus for which Amin provided a haven at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, Dr Garrigan’s plight is the film’s main concern.

It’s the culminating point in the film, in which history, Amin, and Whitaker recede into the background in the name of “good drama.”

“The Last King of Scotland” doubtlessly deserves the attention it has received, but it is entirely indebted to Whitaker’s unfailing performance.