Movies: Forest Whitaker: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland

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He's a big guy (6 ft. 2 in., 220 lbs.), and at 45, he's no longer a kid. But with his round face and eager, innocent eyes, there's still something childlike about Forest Whitaker. He made his strongest, early impression as Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird--a man who was all appetite, savaging a genius-struck gift for music with his unrestrained lust for drugs and self-destruction. Whitaker has waited almost 20 years to get back in touch with his big inner baby. Now he's back, not as victim but as victimizer, one of the most horrendous in modern memory: Uganda's shrewd, mad dictator, Idi Amin.

Before he was overthrown, Amin managed to slaughter something like 300,000 of his fellow countrymen--often, as director Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland would have it, with a merry, cunning grin. As Whitaker plays him, he's a prisoner of hair-trigger paranoia. Or possibly he has history's most virulent case of attention-deficit disorder. Whitaker brings the same whacked-out energy to both the charity and carnage Amin orchestrates--alternately charming and scaring the bejesus out of the international press, the diplomatic corps and a young, fictional Scottish doctor who becomes the tyrant's confidant.

The film wastes much time on the doctor--time that could have been more profitably spent on Whitaker, who gives one of the great bold-strokes performances of recent years. This is not about subtlety; his mood swings are teeth rattling, shifting in nanoseconds from boyish to brutal, manipulative to maleficent, while we hang on for a grim yet giddy ride.