"The Last King of Scotland" is mostly a fictional work and this is something I did not know about until performing a little research for my review of the film that landed Forest Whitaker his Academy Award for Best Actor. Maybe Hollywood needs to put some labels on films that are based on stories that take large liberties in revising history to tell a story. I don't have a problem with telling a story based upon actual facts. James Cameron struck gold with "Titanic" and I enjoy that film heavily. The problem with "The Last King of Scotland" is that the story is told so convincingly that it is believable and I watched the film with the intent to enjoy Whitaker's masterful performance and to learn a little bit about brutal African dictator Idi Amin. I felt misled, but at least I was entertained in this subversion of history.
The large fictional injection for "The Last King of Scotland" is the character of Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan. Portrayed by James McAvoy, Nicholas is unhappy with a life of working with his father in the family practice and needs to live his own life. He spins a globe and deciding against Canada, he ends up in Uganda. In Uganda he works for David (Adam Kotz), a doctor who struggles to prove that modern medicine is a better solution than witch doctors. Nicholas quickly falls in love with the work and the people, but also for David's beautiful blonde wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson). Sarah refuses to have an affair with Nicholas, but they form a friendship that is torn apart when Nicholas aids General Amin (Whitaker), who is now the President of Uganda.
Amin quickly forms a liking for the Scotish Nicholas and offers him a very attractive position as his personal doctor and a chance to help run Uganda's medical agency. Nicholas first turns down the position, but he is won over by the charming Amin and accepts the position. The two share a strong friendship and Amin enjoys Nicholas' matter-of-fact demeanor and ability to speak his mind. Soon, Nicholas becomes Amin's most trusted friend and he is rewarded with a Mercedes convertible and other lavish gifts. The relationship isn't always healthy as Nicholas is often attacked by the volatile Amin and the President's moods and the dangerous climate of Uganda keep Nicholas in danger. Nicholas' strong attraction to Amin's wife Kay (Kerry Washington) only makes matters worse.
After a string of events, Nicholas begins to fear for his life and he decides that it would be best for him to flee Uganda. Unfortunately, Amin does not want Nicholas to leave and they have taken his passport. British agent Stone (Simon McBurney) offers Nicholas passage out of Uganda, but demands that Nicholas helps in overthrowing the ruthless dictator and use his access as Amin's doctor to poison him. While Nicholas first feels some semblance of loyalty to his friend, he begins to see Amin's brutality and realizes this is his only way to get back home to his family and escape with his life. Matters grow worse and the film ends brutally and with closing statements that help build a false belief that "The Last King of Scotland" was based in fact and not fiction.
Whitaker is incredible as Amin and I've enjoyed his body of work since I fell in love with cinema. He was great in early roles as "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Platoon." However, it wasn't until his performance as Jody in "The Crying Game" that Whitaker began to gain the large amount of respect he has earned. "Ghost Dog: The way of the Samurai" is perhaps my favorite film starring Whitaker and while he did appear in the horrendous "Battlefield Earth" and slightly better "Phenomenon" with John Travolta, Whitaker typically chooses roles that are artistic and emotionally challenging. Oddly, Oscar magic hasn't landed Whitaker many larger roles and since 2002 when he starred in hits "Phone Booth" and "Panic Room," Whitaker seems relegated to the more obscure films.
McAvoy is very good as the fictitious Nicholas. I had felt that the Scot's rise to power did seem a little farfetched, but it seemed like an amazing story. McAvoy benefits from not having to base his life on an actual person (although the story is purported to be very loosely based upon some of the events of British doctor Robert Astles). He still gives a spirited performance that stands up nicely to the imposing Whitaker. Regardless of the fictional roots of McAvoy's character, it cannot take away from the very strong performance by the Scottish actor. He shows humanity, greed and a degree of naivety that helps make the character of Nicholas Garrigan feel very real. This movie succeeds because of its stars.
Directed by Kevin MacDonald, "The Last King of Scotland" is a well-told and nicely paced thriller that does tell an interesting story based up the curious character of Idi Amin. I was surprised to see that many feel MacDonald paints a very good picture of Amin as a man and that many of the traits shown in the film are how people did perceive Amin. His brutality and violence are not questioned, but he is shown as a charismatic man who had a great sense of humor and those around him enjoyed his presence. It also touches on his paranoia and distrust of those around him. There is a lot of truth in this fiction and watching the film alone won't provide enough clues as to what really happened, but MacDonald based his film on the Giles Foden novel of the same name.
While I was not excited to learn that most of "The Last King of Scotland" was fictional, the film was still very enjoyable for its revisionist history and the very strong performances of Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy. This is a performance driven movie that benefits from a pretty good story; even if it's not exactly truthful. It would be interesting to see what Amin's personal views would have been on this film, but considering he died a half dozen years ago, that is not possible. Whether or not the man was a vicious cannibal or responsible for building a strong Uganda is a point of debate, but you can't debate that Forest Whitaker didn't earn his Oscar for this incredible performance. Now, if only a few directors out there can start casting the veteran actor in more deserving roles than "Powder Blue."
"The Last King of Scotland" is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and director Kevin MacDonald delivers the film with documentary-style cinematography. The film features very overblown contrast and the sky is pure white at times and a slight ‘haze' is felt while watching the picture. Detail is good, but some black crush was noticed during darker scenes. Close-ups show skin textures and the fine leather of the Mercedes convertible is strong. Colors are very stylized and the overblown palette features gold and green hues dominating the transfer. However, I do recall a red car and some peacocks looking stunning. Watching the film certainly is a high definition experience, but watching the movie had me recall the works of Paul Greengrass. The source print is good and clean.
Audio is brought to the ears with the rubber stamp format of choice for 20th Century Fox, English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. There are some moments of gunfire and an attack on Idi Amin when the Mercedes is first given to Nicholas sound great and show excellent usage of surrounds and the .1 LFE channel. Some musical moments and the African score by Alex Heffes sound clean and fill the room. This is a predominantly front heavy mix and features long scenes with a lot of dialogue. This isn't a bad thing, as the strong sound mix does allow you to fully enjoy Forest Whitaker's amazing performance. Overall, this is a very good mix as it is technically sound. Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital as well as a French 5.1 DTS provide varied technology for foreign language support and subtitles are provided for all four supported languages.
A handful of bonus features are ported over to the Blu-ray release of "The Last King of Scotland." Interestingly, the most important feature is not listed on the box packaging, but the Feature Commentary with Director Kevin MacDonald has the director discuss the picture and he talks about his views on the book, the fiction and while he is very laid back in his delivery, this is an informative commentary track. There is a lot of history and information on Uganda buried in this commentary. MacDonald also provides and optional commentary on the seven Deleted Scenes (12:00). I enjoyed the first scene that showed Amin's boxing days and felt these open-matted offerings were an above average selection of cutting room footage.
Three featurettes are also included. The first is Capturing Idi Amin (29:04). This feature is a mix of interviews and historical footage that nicely balances promoting the picture and providing a very intriguing look of the exiled late dictator. Many people that were involved with Amin are interviewed as well as the common Ugandan citizen and it's interesting to hear what they have to say. Footage of Amin is a nice addition as well. Forest Whitaker "Idi Amin" (5:59) isn't nearly as good as the first supplement, but has Whitaker talk about his role in portraying Amin and his original views of Amin and his beliefs after researching Amin. Last and least of the featurettes is Fox Movie Channel Presents: Casting Session – The Last King of Scotland (8:36). This is promo fluff. The Theatrical Trailer is also included.
The story behind "The Last King of Scotland" is based on one actual historic figure and a wholly fabricated one. While Nicholas Garrigan isn't Jar Jar Binks, I found the manner in which the film would lead one to believe the story is historical was misleading and it left me a little disheartened. However, you cannot deny the powerhouse performance by star Forest Whitaker. Yes, I've used many big descriptive adjectives to describe Whitaker and he deserves it. This is a performance to see as Whitaker brings the complex man of Idi Amin to life. The story is still good and co-star James McAvoy is great in his fictitious role. In the end I still have to recommend the film, but just don't believe everything you see. The Blu-ray features a good transfer and the commentary and largest featurette are worth checking out.