Screenwriter Peter Morgan is having a big week, with two of his movies, The Queen (Miramax) and The Last King of Scotland (Fox Searchlight Pictures) opening just two days apart. Though the viewing experience of these two films couldn't be more different, both are political fictions about real-life leaders who each, in their way, allow power to turn them into monsters.
Obviously, Queen Elizabeth II of England's monstrousness is on a whole other scale from that of Idi Amin, the bloodthirsty former dictator of Uganda. She struggles with how best to cope with the cultural shifts of a rapidly modernizing Britain, while he struggles with how best to track down his enemies and feed them to crocodiles. But Morgan's portraits of the two rulers have something in common. He's interested in the way tradition and sycophancy shield the powerful from criticism and how reality eventually finds its way through that shield. Both movies remind us of the simple but easily obscured truth that politics, in the end, always comes down to people: not just "the people" but real, living individuals, with their appetites, histories, fears, and desires.
The Last King of Scotland (co-scripted by Jeremy Brock) filters the corruption and violence of Amin's regime through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who arrives in Uganda in the early '70s with a thirst for adventure and a vague desire to do good. Garrigan takes a job at a rural health clinic, where he lamely attempts a fling with a married co-worker (Gillian Anderson, looking strangely like Virginia Madsen). A visit from Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), the president who has just overthrown the corrupt Obote regime, has a galvanizing effect on Garrigan; he's charmed by Amin's boisterous personality and common touch. At Amin's invitation, Garrigan moves to the capital to become the general's private doctor, lured by promises that he'll be put in charge of national health-care reform. That promise never materializes, but soon the young Scotsman is driving his own Mercedes convertible and drinking imported liquor—lots and lots of it, as he tries to blot out his growing awareness of the methods his boss uses to prop up his power.
These methods include coercion and bribery, offenses Garrigan is able to rationalize away as the inevitable grease in the wheels of African politics. But as the general's critics begin disappearing with disturbing regularity, Garrigan is forced to do battle with his own conscience—a battle he loses spectacularly. At first naive, then bungling, and finally despicable, the doctor is a self-serving coward who earns his derogatory nickname, the "white chimp." He's an uneasy character to have to identify with, but The Last King of Scotland (named, like the novel it's based on, for one of the fanciful titles Amin gave himself) leaves you little choice. Unlike Hotel Rwanda (2004), it doesn't give you a likeable African protagonist through whom to process the horrors of torture and genocide.
The Last King of Scotland never rises to the standard set by Forest Whitaker's fearless (and fearsome) performance as Idi Amin. Whitaker clearly has it in him to plumb the psychological recesses of this curiously playful madman, but the director, Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), doesn't ask him to. Instead, Amin serves as a backdrop for the story of Garrigan's moral degeneration. The early encounters between the two men are convincingly fraught with menace, but the last 20 minutes feel like a pat political thriller, with Garrigan's attempted escape from Uganda dovetailing too neatly with the 1976 Israeli raid on a hijacked jet in Entebbe. This climactic escape sequence also includes a torture scene so graphic and stomach-churning, it makes The Passion of the Christ look like Operation Dumbo Drop. The Last King of Scotland is wrenching to sit through, but in the end, it doesn't leave you with quite enough to think about.
Stephen Frears' The Queen, on the other hand, is a sheer delight to sit through and leaves you with a whole evening's worth of impassioned conversation. It's a thoroughly fictionalized but altogether plausible reconstruction of the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Why was the royal family so famously slow to make any public acknowledgement of Diana's death? What might the dialogue have been between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the then-new prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), about how to respond to the loss of a woman who, even after her divorce from Prince Charles, remained a potent symbol for the British people? And when the queen finally did address her people on the eve of Diana's funeral with a speech of unprecedented warmth, what combination of political spin, media bullying, and genuine emotion went into its preparation?
The Queen takes these questions apart with the psychological precision of a great novel. (Henry James comes to mind, given the resonance the movie grants to tiny violations of politesse.) Its tone is curious; it's a political comedy that's not a satire and a story of mass grief that's not a tragedy. Diana's death is dispatched in one brief, oblique scene (one that clearly lays the blame for the crash at the feet of the paparazzi, then abandons the matter entirely), and Frears' discretion is so extreme that we never see the princess's face except in old news footage.
After Diana's death, the film cuts between the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing St. and the queen's summer retreat at Balmoral, as the government and the crown ponder their next move with the deliberation of two chess masters. But the queen and the P.M. are not only opposing players with very different conceptions of the uses of power; they're also co-governors of Britain, with a common interest in the well-being of their people. The clash of wills that follows, and the compromise that results, makes for one of the smartest political films I've seen in years, whether documentary or fiction.
Michael Sheen is an absolute ringer for Tony Blair and has already played him under Frears' direction in a British TV movie, The Deal. As a non-British subject I can't comment on how accurate his Blair impersonation is, but it doesn't matter; he creates a whole, believable character who's sympathetic enough to make you almost sorry for the prime minister's recent public farewell (he plans to step down in 2007). Helen Mirren, as I've written before in these pages, can do no wrong. She's a goddess of an actress, and her Queen Elizabeth is maddening, hilarious, and deeply human, galumphing around the Balmoral estate in a tartan raincoat and waders as the Britain she thought she knew crumbles around her.
After seeing The Queen, you may want to go out with your viewing companion for a stimulating discussion over crumpets and tea; after The Last King of Scotland, you're more likely to visit the theater's restroom to throw up. But both movies take on political giants who could easily have become coarse caricatures (of evil, in Amin's case, and of tradition-bound conventionality, in Elizabeth's) and instead show them as the contradictory figures they really were, and are.