Awards from major critics groups, including the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Golden Globes help make Forest Whitaker a leading contender for the Best Actor Oscar. The Hollywood veteran is earning all this "buzz" for his portrayal of Ugandan president Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Alan Silverman has this look at the film.
When Army general Idi Amin became president of Uganda in a 1971 coup, he won widespread support with promises of reform and economic independence from former colonial ties.
But Amin's rule was marked by fear and sectarian violence. By the time he was forced from power in 1979, Amnesty International estimates as many as 500,000 Ugandans had been killed. Among the titles Amin gave himself were "President for Life," "Lord of All The Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea" and "The Last King of Scotland," which became the title for an award-winning novel on which the film is based. In this mix of fact and fiction, history turns on a chance encounter between the Ugandan leader and a volunteer doctor from Scotland.
Garrigan becomes the President's personal physician and close confidante; but with this front-row seat, the young doctor watches in horror as the promises of change give way to atrocities.
Much of the film was shot on location in Uganda and Forest Whitaker says working with people who experienced the Amin years helped him grasp the duality of the character he played.
"When you talk to the people of Uganda, they have a dual opinion of him," Whitaker says. "There are people who hate him and there are people who really admire him like a hero. There's a large group that say they know all these murders and atrocities occurred, but he did all these great things. He did things that clearly were wrong to do, but I think his intention in the beginning was to try to change the country."
Whitaker vividly captures the seductive charm and explosive rage of Amin.
"I was pretty much consumed by this character. Working on the character, even when I was off I was continually searching for something new about the character," he says.
The actor admits that he became so involved with the Amin portrayal that he had to make an extra effort to leave it behind after the filming was done.
"In the last day, I remember I was really trying to get the character out of me as much as I could. Literally, you take a bath and try to wash him off of you," says Whitaker.
Rising young Scottish actor James McAvoy co-stars as Garrigan, a fictional character based on several real Europeans who were advisors to Amin.
"The film is really about relationships," he explains. "As much as it is a political bio-pic [biographical picture], it is about a relationship, ultimately ... a personal one between two men, but actually I think it's a replica of the relationship that Amin had with the British government. I think that my character, as much as he's representing a naive young backpacker who is very selfish, I think that quite accurately describes our experience in Uganda and Africa.
Director Kevin MacDonald, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, believes the events of 35 years ago as portrayed in the film resonate with today's headlines.
"I think there are all sorts of ways you can see this as having a contemporary aspect to it. To start with, it's a story about how power corrupts somebody. It corrupts Amin, but also the young doctor, Garrigan ... and how he is seduced by power," MacDonald says. "That's something that goes on around us all the time, not just in politics, but it goes on corporate life and personal life. People are seduced by powerful men and women and they do things to get ahead ...and before they know it, they've sold their souls. In a way this is a modern re-telling of the Faust myth. That's how I looked at it."
"The Last King of Scotland" also features Gillian Anderson as Dr. Garrigan's colleague at a rural medical clinic; Kerry Washington plays a wife of the Ugandan leader who suffers a terrible fate for her infidelity.