By John H. Foote
The first time I really noticed Forest Whitaker, the towering young actor, was stealing every second he was onscreen opposite Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986), portraying a pool shark. Playing with Newman’s Eddie Felson, he had convinced Eddie he was good, but not great when in fact he was astonishing. With a constant smile, mocking Eddie throughout their games together, he has absolute confidence he can win, and not only does he win he humiliates Eddie, just for the fun of it, actually refusing at one point the money. Not crazy though, he accepts the money in the end after kicking the ass of the onetime shark.
Two years later, Whitaker won the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award for his superb performance as jazz great Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s daring Bird (1988), the film that firmly established him as an actor to be reckoned with. Over the next 18 years, Whitaker gave an array of fine performances that made him a darling of the critics and got him noticed by audiences.
Great performances in films such as The Crying Game (1992), Blown Away (1994), Phenomenon (1996), Ghost Dog (1999), Panic Room and Phone Booth (2002) all leading to his finest work as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006). Among the most acclaimed performances in the history of the cinema, for his work as Amin the actor won Best Actor awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the Online Film Critics Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globe (Drama) and of course, the Academy Award for Best Actor. No question his performance is among the greatest in film history, a towering piece of acting, creating a seductive man who is in every way a monster. His crimes against humanity were not even covered up, so arrogant was Amin the bodies of his enemies were piled in the countryside like logs on primitive roads.
Whitaker gives a thundering, towering performance as one of the most vile human beings of the 20th century, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, a living monster in the flesh. Ruling with a sense of contempt for humanity he erased those who opposed him, even those whom he thought might oppose him.
A young Scottish doctor, portrayed winningly by James McAvoy, working at a clinic in Uganda helping the impoverished is offered the chance to work with Amin after a chance meeting on a country road. Riding by limo directly into Uganda, he is raised by Amin, offered the chance to be a part of a new government and really do something for the country. Impressed by Amin, he accepts and earns a place in the circle, not knowing that Amin is a monster. He learns all too quickly that Amin is paranoid, believes those he claims to trust are trying to kill him, lies about his deeds, and squashes anything he sees as a threat to his presidency with death, often preceded by vile torture.
Whitaker captures the intensity of Amin, those watchful eyes, like a predator sizing up its prey before attacking, that warm smile that never touched the eyes, as though he were wearing a mask. Deeper and darker into the character, he finds the lack of humanity within the man, who was one of the most dangerous men in the history of mankind.
When the young doctor realizes he cannot escape Amin, he becomes terrified that at any moment he could be killed. Whitaker builds unspeakable tension as Amin because he radiates danger and everyone near him, friend or foe, is frightened of him.
Harrowing as a biography because the director chose to be honest in the portrayal of Amin, electrifying in the manner Whitaker portrays Amin, that enormous smile masking the monster behind it, the film, though fictional, is among the greatest biographical portrayals in recent history.
When Whitaker is onscreen the film hums with an electricity curiously absent when he is offscreen. Yet something happens to the charisma we first see, Amin becomes an object of terror and we genuinely fear what he might do next, which is precisely how the people of Uganda felt in his presence.
In the end, Whitaker creates a complex man who is an insidious man, making the film a compelling study of pure evil and yet evil has ever been as intoxicating. What makes Amin tick? Power and the absolute abuse of it.
As astonishing, searing performance from one of the greatest actors in movies.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.