2 February 2007 | EUyeshima
Whitaker's Towering Portrayal of the Mesmerizing Ugandan Dictator Lifts This Historical Fiction
Forest Whitaker's ferociously charismatic turn as Idi Amin so dominates this intense historical fiction that it is honestly difficult to pay attention to anything else in this 2006 political thriller. Even though he is definitively the emotional locus, he is intriguingly not the protagonist of the story. That role belongs to young James McAvoy, who plays Nicholas Garrigan, a precocious Scottish doctor who ventures to Uganda to satisfy his need for adventure after graduating medical school. By happenstance, Garrigan is called upon to help Amin with a minor sprain after his private car plows into a cow. Impressed by the young man's lack of hesitancy to take action, Amin appoints Garrigan to be his personal physician, a post that seduces the impressed doctor into the Ugandan dictator's political inner circle and extravagant lifestyle.
Scottish director Kevin MacDonald brings his extensive documentary film-making skills to the fore here, as he creates a most realistic-feeling atmosphere in capturing the oppressive Uganda of the 1970's. Helping considerably with this image are the vibrant color contrasts in Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography and the propulsive action induced by Justine Wright's sharp editing. Screenwriters Peter Morgan (who also wrote "The Queen") and Jeremy Brock have developed a sharply delineated character study of Amin, who evolves from a magnetic leader giving hope to his people to a scarifying tyrant conducting murders on an imaginable scale (at least until the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur). It is impossible to over-praise Whitaker's towering performance here. He conveys the dictator's playfulness as well as his unmitigated rage moving from simmering to full boil with a power that is at once bravura and subtle. His relationship with the fictionalized Garrigan turns out to be the plot's essential pivot point, although the contrast between the two can be almost too extreme at times.
While McAvoy admirably captures the boyish naiveté of Garrigan, the character is drawn out in rather broad strokes that make his self-delusion all the more contrived as the story progresses. To intensify the political upheaval portrayed, the plot takes a melodramatic turn into an adulterous affair and even folds in the infamous 1976 Entebbe hijacking incident to illustrate Garrigan's increasingly precarious situation. It's all exciting and even downright brutalizing toward the end, but it also starts to feel a bit too Hollywood in execution. Kerry Washington shows genuine versatility as Amin's cloistered third wife Kay, while Simon McBurney oozes cynical suspicion with ease as a British operative. A convincingly Brit-accented Gillian Anderson makes her few scenes count as a weary clinic worker who proves to have better instincts than Garrigan. But see the movie for Whitaker's magnificent work. He is that good.