Much has been said already about Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin (legendary dictator of Uganda) in this film, and when one sits down with such high expectations, one tends to be disappointed. However, Whitaker’s portrayal of this fascinating and complex man is truly a wonder to behold.
Our lead character is actually Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), who jaunts off to Uganda to make a difference and have an adventure. He comes from a stifling home and just wants to plunge into life and really matter while he does it. Amin has just taken over the country in a coup (arranged by the British), and Garrigan’s accidental acquaintance with Amin follows the arc of his reign over Uganda from parades to assassination attempts. I suspect Giles Foden’s book is intensely fascinating.
We see Amin’s charming, funny side, his passionate side, his intentions and dreams. Whitaker said on NPR that he consulted with the family to be certain to bring as many sides to this man who is generally written off as a one-dimensional monster. When Garrigan encounters Amin, the new president is injured, feral, a wounded lion with sharp claws, confused and blinded by pain. From here we can see the flickering shadows of the man would get to know as The Wild Man of Africa. Garrigan’s European optimism (and previously sheltered existence) blind him to some of the red flags as he is swept up into a grander adventure than he had ever dared hope for. Amin is like an all-embracing patriarch, but also like a furious toddler, bubbling with rage and irrational rejection of reasonable argument. His paranoia and distrust consume his country. He has a terrifying personality, able to swing from intense love and trust to abject brutality with the flick of an eyelid. He was a tempestuous man, and Whitaker somehow channels this intense energy without resorting to Pacinoesque histrionics.
Amin’s fetishistic belief in his good luck charms and the near-magical power he gets from his sense of Anglophilia make him seem quirky, charming and harmless – a man in a kilt, ho ho! – even as it spells out disaster. Watching the Bretons who put him in power scramble to cover their tracks adds to the unease and paranoia already engendered by Amin’s increasingly arbitrary policies. The sycophants’ sweaty grins of fear echo Amin’s self-fulfilling prophecies of treachery and disaster. He is all id with no restraint.
Whitaker is electrifying (I hate it when critics use that word, but seriously, it applies), but the film itself is merely agur for his performance. I had very little sense of a time line and Garrigan was only developed enough as a character to get him through the door and then hope he can claw his way out again. Gillian Anderson makes a brief and not-quite-relevant appearance looking immeasurably sexy, but her segment is really just delaying the real entrÃ©e that is Whitaker.
My complaints are minor when stacked against a fascinating portrait of a terrible time and a charismatic philosopher-animal like Amin. It’s definitely worth your time and money.
MPAA Rating R-strong language, gruesome images, sexuality
Release date 9/27/06
Time in minutes 121
Director Kevin MacDonald
Studio Fox Searchlight