Every picture tells a story

Sometimes the distance between image and reality is vast.

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click to enlarge RAH! RAH! SIS BOOM BAH! Idi Amin (Forest Whittaker) gets the party started in Last King of Scotland. - Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
RAH! RAH! SIS BOOM BAH! Idi Amin (Forest Whittaker) gets the party started in Last King of Scotland.

What with Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assaulting our tender sensibilities on a near daily basis, the atrocities of bygone monsters like Uganda's Idi Amin might not look quite so, well, atrocious these days.

Still, it's helpful to remember that Amin, who happily slaughtered over 300,000 of his own people before being overthrown in 1979, was a pretty bad egg. A paranoid buffoon with a vicious murderous streak, you might even say he set the mold for the loony despots of today.

We don't begin to get the full measure of Idi Amin until a bit too late in the game in The Last King of Scotland, but when the movie finally plays its hand, it's the real deal. Forest Whitaker, who is the main reason to see this movie, captures all of Amin's bluster and creepy pathos beautifully, from the smallest private insecurity to the most grandiose derangement. Everything about the way Whitaker plays the man is purposely, desperately larger than life, from the sonic boom of a voice to basic body language. When he speaks, Whitaker's Amin constantly seems to be swooping his arms out in ever widening circles, as if determined to grab the universe by the short-and-curlies and scoop it back into his orbit.

Amin's character is the main show here, based closely on the real, historical Idi Amin. But much of the rest of The Last King of Scotland is useful fiction, a bit of poetic license conjured up to demonstrate the movie's moral conflicts. The film invents a hero — a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) — who becomes an insider in Amin's regime, a position that ostensibly provides us with the clinical detachment of an outsider's perspective. Garrigan catches the Ugandan dictator's eye and winds up with an offer he can't refuse — to become Amin's personal physician. Then, having made his deal with the devil, proceeds to succumb to the considerable temptations of hell.

Director Kevin MacDonald wants us to focus on how easy it is to be seduced by evil, so for much of the movie's running time we share Garrigan's cluelessness as to the extents of Amin's outrages. At first, General Amin even seems like a pretty swell guy, a bit of a demagogue but not without his charm and vision, a hard-partying self-promoter full of promises of new schools and roads. "He's a little unpredictable, but he's got a firm hand," underestimates one Western observer, adding with a sniff, "which is the only thing the Africans understand."

Only gradually do we begin to suspect the immense divide between the carefully mediated image and the reality of Idi Amin, and it's not until nearly an hour into the film that we begin to glimpse the full barbaric measure of the man. Even here, though, the movie is relatively demure. Depravity is suggested by extended scenes of topless African girls dancing poolside in cowboy hats (images that border on the naive) and stoned cronies sitting around Amin's inner sanctum nodding off to a 16mm print of Deep Throat. It's not until virtually the last moment that the movie finally cuts loose and supplies the true markers of Amin's reign of terror: the insane bursts of sadistic savagery, the mutilated bodies turning up in shallow graves.

Reservations aside, The Last King of Scotland does a decent job communicating the danger and chaos of its time and place, even if the movie seems to be saying that true terror isn't Amin or any single individual (though Whitaker's monumental performance may convince you otherwise) but the Kafkaesque scenario of being caught up in a system beyond logic. Bad as that might sound, stick around for the footage of the real Idi that plays over the closing credits; check out those eyes darting back and forth like a caged animal's and tell me what you see. Every picture tells a story, and this one looks straight into the void.

A single picture can alsowin or lose a war, and that's precisely what's at stake in Clint Eastwood's new movie, Flags of our Fathers.

The picture in question is the famous photograph of American soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima, an image that beefed up morale (and funds) at a low point during World War II, and encouraged the allies to press on and win the war. Like all propaganda, the Iwo Jima photo is stirring and instantly understandable, but the drum being beaten by Flags of our Fathers, much like the idea underpinning Last King of Scotland, is that what we see is almost never as simple as it appears.

As in Unforgiven and other key Eastwood films, Flags of our Fathers is about mythmaking, heroes who are not really heroes and the folly of worshiping false idols. There will be those who hail Flags of our Fathers as Eastwood's most "important" movie for addressing this favorite subject in such an epic and obvious way, but it is for exactly those same reasons that the director's new film feels so turgid and even a bit pompous.

For 132 rather long minutes, Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis (master of the ham-fist from Crash) lurch back and forth between scenes showing us the chaos and cruelty of war, and scenes showing us how that same war is packaged and sold, sanitized into something curiously bloodless and yet worth dying for. The movie's main characters are the three surviving soldiers from the flag-raising photograph (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach), recruited by the powers-that-be for a massive, nationwide publicity campaign to cash in on the galvanizing power of that famous photo.

The only problem is that the circumstances surrounding that photograph are considerably less heroic — and less clear — than they seem, and the three soldiers spend most of the movie being whisked from one fundraiser to the next, trying to keep it together while selling an illusion to the public.

In between speaking engagements, our alleged heroes flashback to the actual combat, giving the movie ample opportunity to show off its massive armadas of CGI-created battleships and warplanes (at times, Flags seems to be attempting to do for WWII what Gladiator did for ancient Rome), as well as plenty of Saving Private Ryan-esque moments, complete with bodies being blown to bits and severed heads staring silently into space.

The battle scenes are plenty graphic, but the storytelling sputters and sprawls so badly that it's hard to get emotionally involved. The movie's rhythm is all fits and starts, with voice-over duties periodically passed from one caregiver to the next and characters appearing out of thin air at various points (particularly in the last act) to briefly take center stage. For that matter, many of these characters aren't even properly introduced to us and, consequently, there's an awful lot of agonizing going on here about people we barely know.

The production screams class (Spielberg produced, after all) and the material begs to be taken seriously, but Eastwood makes his points in the film's first 15 minutes and then essentially just repeats himself. War is hell, he announces, a hero ain't nuthin' but a sandwich, and the eternal grind of the publicity machine is a pretty awful and shallow thing. Unless, of course, it's Oscar time and your new movie needs a little leg up on the competition.

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