What exactly is "true" about The Last King of Scotland?

Inside the big picture show.
Jan. 31 2007 12:24 PM

Based on True Events

What exactly is "true" about The Last King of Scotland?

Catching up on homework: Well, we finally got around to slipping The Last King of Scotland into the DVD player. For some reason it took a while to bring ourselves to watch the bloody mayhem that must be a part of any movie about Idi Amin—and part of many films angling for Oscar.

At the beginning, there was the inevitable "inspired by true events" claim that is also mandatory for many movies angling for Oscar. After that unfolds a preposterous tale—and there are major spoilers to come—that left us wondering, exactly which true events inspired this? At a glance, the only facts in the film are that there was a deranged dictator named Idi Amin in a place called Uganda and, at one time, a hijacked Air France airliner landed there. *

The movie, based on an acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, tells the tale of a young Scottish doctor who finds himself a favorite of Idi Amin. The doctor can be rather plucky with Amin but generally ignores the growing evidence of the hideous truth. He busies himself with knocking up one of Amin's wives and then getting her an abortion. Unfortunately the boss is wise to him and has him hung by hooks thrust into his flesh. Far more fortunately, this hanging takes place at the airport at the exact moment when some Entebbe hostages are being released. A noble colleague sacrifices himself to free the bloodied doctor, who slinks off with the Entebbe hostages. His doomed savior admonishes him to tell the world of the outrages perpetrated in Uganda.

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This series of astonishing events made us curious about the truth upon which the story was based. It was late, so we were left with Wikipedia. (In the Internet age, truth is easy to come by—right?) We found that the character of the young doctor was loosely based on a fellow named Bob Astles, who was neither Scottish nor a doctor. Twice married, he was an English adventurer who worked for Amin while running a pineapple farm as well as an aviation service. He later said, "I kept my eyes shut, I said nothing about what I saw, which is what they liked."

Astles eventually became the head of Amin's anti-corruption squad. "Until today, what Astles did or did not do during Amin's brutal tenure is conjecture," the Wikipedia article concludes. "He was feared, and considered by many to be a malign influence on the dictator; others thought he was a moderating presence."

It's imperative for novelists to invent, of course, but why does the film industry have a compulsion to palm off stories based on "true" events that are not just miles but light-years from the truth? Not that many people will see The Last King of Scotland—although more than might be expected, thanks to Forest Whitaker's almost assured best actor award. And how many of them will walk away thinking they've seen something that is more true than not?

The bottom line is that Hollywood has little respect for the truth. When he was making JFK, Oliver Stone became enraged when George Lardner, a Washington Post reporter who had covered the assassination of John Kennedy, got hold of a script and denounced the story as preposterous. It wasn't fair, Stone said, to judge an unfinished movie by a screenplay. Pressed about whether the misrepresentations in the screenplay wouldn't also be in the film, Stone said the movie would represent an "essential truth," and that adherence to actual fact was less important.

And there you have the Hollywood attitude—the movie version is the one that counts. The only time we can remember that this approach was stuffed up the industry's nose was when the 1999 film The Hurricane was attacked for misrepresenting facts about boxer Rubin Carter. That episode did not teach the industry caution. Instead, a lot of time and expense is devoted to re-creating the look and feel of a period with no regard to what actually occurred.

Many will defend the Hollywood way as an exercise of the artist's prerogative. And obviously there are many immortal stories told in historical settings. But it would have been peculiar if Thackeray suggested that Vanity Fair was "inspired by true events" because his characters were caught up in the Napoleonic Wars.

And, if you are dealing with something as momentous as the assassination of a president, you might want to stick to facts that were dramatic enough. If you have a strong story—a fiction about a young doctor and an African dictator—why not just embrace it for what it is and lose the tenuous "true story" claim? Diddling with history, as we've seen, can be a dangerous business. (link)

Friday, Jan. 26, 2007

Another helping: More scoop on the earlier report that Brad Grey was denied credit on The Departed.

The academy is searching its soul.

Last night, the academy decided that Brad Grey cannot accept an Oscar should The Departed win in the best picture category.

The academy also decided that only three of five producers will be permitted to accept the award for Little Miss Sunshine should it win.

The academy giveth, the academy taketh away.

The academy has said it will let the Producers Guild decide the issue of who deserves a "produced by" credit for award purposes. The guild attempts to vet the question thoroughly. It decided that Grey didn't deserve the "produced by" credit for The Departed. But it also named five producers for Little Miss Sunshine.

Here's where the academy parted ways with the guild. The academy has held that no more than three people should go on stage to receive the best picture award. So it booted two of the five Sunshine producers. It's a tough break for Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who first shopped the script around Hollywood, recruited the directors, and who, most importantly, were sufficiently involved throughout to get the "produced by" credit from the guild.

The arbitrariness of this decision is apparent even to the academy, and we now hear that the group will re-evaluate its rules and consider whether it should just stick with the guild decisions on who gets to accept the best picture award in the future.

It may be too late for Yerxa and Berger. But their picture did set a Sundance record when it sold for $10.5 million. It has silenced those who mocked Fox Searchlight for overpaying, as the film has grossed almost $100 million worldwide with more to come (pretty good margins for a movie that cost about $8 million). But no producer wants to be the one who was treated so unfairly that the academy had to reconsider its rules. 5:15 P.M. (link)

Here'sa scoop: Sources tell us that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided not to recognize Paramount chief Brad Grey as a producer on The Departed. Recall that Grey had helped to put the movie together as a manager/producer before he assumed his current role. The Producers Guild had denied him a "produced by" credit, a decision that he appealed unsuccessfully. The academy generally follows the guild's lead on this issue, but Grey nonetheless appealed. Now, that appeal has apparently been denied, meaning that should The Departed win on Oscar night, Grey will have to content himself with a quick hug in the aisle. Since the film was released by Warner, and Paramount has Babel in contention, some in the industry feel that's the appropriate result. 2:07 P.M. (link)

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

Men in Black: Creative Artists Agency has just moved into its formidable new digs (our friends at Defamer have already noted the terror that struck  a Century City denizen who observed an incursion of agents into a shopping-mall food court).

The new location presumably will be quite comfortable once they get the air-conditioning trouble straightened out. Meanwhile, CAA's rivals can content themselves with the image of CAA agents, for once, sweating.

But what of CAA's old home at the intersection of Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards? The gleaming I.M. Pei-designed monument to CAA co-founder Michael Ovitz's lofty dream? It seems just yesterday that ground was broken there with a feng shui ceremony and a flight of white birds.

Well, the feng shui seems to have worked well for the agency, which dominates the industry. But it didn't do much for the chi between the former CAA partners who own the now-empty building.

Last May, the Los Angeles Times speculated that after CAA departed, the building would become "the most expensive Beverly Hills office space in memory." A tenant would ante up about $6 million a year—or a pricey $5 a square foot—for this influential address. But no one has stepped up.

The building is owned by Ovitz and erstwhile partners Ron Meyer (the head of Universal Studios), producer Bill Haber, and former CAA Chief Financial Officer Robert Goldman. CAA has rented the building from them since 1995 and—according to at least one source with firsthand knowledge of the situation—is still paying rent.

And the building—with its giant, custom-made Roy Lichtenstein painting still in the lobby—is standing vacant. More than a year ago, the owners hired the Cushman & Wakefield brokerage firm to lease the building. But then, nothing happened. "It's the weirdest thing," says veteran Beverly Hills real estate agent Gary Weiss. "All of us don't understand it."

Maybe it's not so weird after all. The building has a curving facade, and the space inside is idiosyncratic and difficult to reconfigure. With its soaring atrium, a tenant would be paying a lot for space that can't be put to use. When Ovitz was working on the plans, Weiss says, "I don't think they paid much attention to whether it was efficient or not."

Then there's the question of what to do with the Lichtenstein. The canvas is gigantic—the artist worked on it in situ—so it's not something that could hang in one's living room or even in an ordinary office lobby. It would be a problem, in fact, to get it out of the building. Sotheby's has apparently advised that it can't be removed from its stretcher without damaging it. "You tell me how you move that," says a longtime CAA partner.

The former CAA partners who own the building (and the painting) put Ovitz in charge of it back in the late 1980s, when it was conceived, and that's the way it is today. Meyer has since said that at the time, he was like an abused spouse in a trance. He could hardly have imagined the acrimony that would follow when the marriage split up, as it did in 1995. (When Meyer landed the job at Universal—a position that Ovitz had sought for himself—Ovitz's incredulous response at learning that Meyer had gotten the offer was enough to sour the relationship. Matters didn't improve when Ovitz later tried to purchase land in Malibu that Meyer had picked out for his dream house.) Now Meyer must wait for Ovitz to rent, sell, buy—do something with the building.

One CAA agent said he'd heard a rumor that Ovitz may want to turn the space into a museum. Through a spokesman, Ovitz dismissed that idea. Certainly Ovitz has a big, expensive collection of modern art (not to mention an ego that could use a new monument, following his ill-fated tenure at Disney and the failure of his management company). And Lichtenstein is already there. Ovitz didn't respond to queries about what he intends to do with the building. (link)

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

The Field Shapes Up:This year's race for the best picture Oscar is starting to resemble the 2008 presidential campaign: so many contenders but no one compelling choice.

By now, you know that Dreamgirls pulled in the most nominations—eight—but was snubbed for best picture and best director. It is fascinating to imagine how this news is being received at Paramount headquarters, where Babel (from the studio's Vantage label) got seven nominations, including the big ones.

All has turned out well for studio chief Brad Grey. He got to issue a press release proclaiming that his studio led with 19 nominations, knowing that his friends at his DreamWorks "label" were left to lick their gaping wounds.

Yes, this was a bad day for DreamWorks (though not for composer Henry Krieger, who appears to be the single most nominated individual, with three best song nods for Dreamgirls).

Clint Eastwood, having been snubbed by the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild, had to be at least a little surprised to be running another victory lap with his best director nod for Letters From Iwo Jima. "When it comes to the Academy, never overlook an old guy who can do it and do it well," chortled one voting member.

The academy showed a healthy respect for diversity. African or African-American actors got five of 20 nominations (Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Jennifer Hudson, and Djimon Hounsou). And the academy recognized all three of the three amigos—Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel, Guillermo del Toro (for best foreign-language nominee Pan's Labyrinth), and Alfonso Cuarón for writing and editing Children of Men.

As the dust settles, little light has been shed on the eventual best picture winner. Some think that since only Babel and The Departed were nominated in the influential editing category, the race comes down to those two. Others point out that a contingent of academy voters hates Babel and dreads nothing more than seeing it become this year's Crash. Another group seems inclined to go only so far for Scorsese—and especially for this movie, which seems to have a number of endings.

So, if you need help with this year's office pool, don't call us. There are a lot of factions out there—making for mathematical possibilities too weird to contemplate. (link)

Correction, Jan. 31, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly identified a hijacked Air France airliner as an El Al airliner. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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