You can always tell its awards season when the biopics start hitting the theatres. Biographies are powerful Oscar magnets. The Academy has always been a sucker for a true-to-life story. Since the beginning of the Academy’s history 1 in 7 films nominated for Best Picture have been life stories and once designated, 1 in 5 go on to win. In the last two years alone Oscars went to actors portraying Ray Charles, Truman Capote and June Carter Cash. Next in line for Oscar consideration, in the Best Actor category at least, should be Forest Whitaker’s true-to-life look at Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s rise to power in The Last King of Scotland.
The story begins with a young Scottish doctor who travels to Uganda to do charity work and winds up as the newly minted dictator Amin’s personal physician. Based upon the novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland places the fictional MD into a historical setting.
James McAvoy, who people will remember as Tumnnus in The Chronicles of Narnia last year, plays a doctor who starts out with the best of intentions but soon finds himself implicit in Amin’s madness as the body count around him grows. Director Kevin MacDonald takes us into Amin’s inner circle, allowing us to see the dictator’s descent into madness from the point-of-view of an objective observer. The doctor acts as a filter through which the viewer learns about the evil of Amin.
We meet the larger- than-life Amin just as he has come to power. He is a captivating figure, a man of the people, whose speechifying can whip a crowd into a frenzy. The doctor, swept away by Amin’s charisma, agrees to work with him to create a new health care system for Uganda. Soon the cracks in Amin’s personality reveal the cruelty of his reign.
McAvoy may be the leading man, but Forest Whitaker’s brilliant performance as Amin is at the heart of this film. He shows us the duality of Amin, the man who on one hand was a magnetic, charismatic leader and on the other a cold-blooded killer who ordered the deaths of 300,000 people during his reign of terror. It is a complex and richly realized performance that elevates the movie from standard biopic to Oscar caliber film.