Pop Culture Junkette

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Kings and Queens

This past weekend, Mrs. Bartender and I went to see both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. We recommend both although we slightly preferred the former.

SPOILERS. First, The Queen or, more precisely, Helen Mirren is Elizabeth II. As you probably know, the movie examines the House of Windsor in the wake of the death of Diana and, in particular, the relationship between Elizabeth and her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in responding to it. Mirren, who has deservedly been praised for her portrayal, is guaranteed to have a seat at the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night. I also would not be surprised to see James Cromwell get a nomination for his (not very flattering) portrayal of the Duke of Edinburgh. Michael Sheen also deserves praise for channeling Tony Blair. In what, at first, seems as if he is imitating Blair a la Saturday Night Live, as the movie develops, you really get comfortable with him as the PM.

In the end, Blair is the hero of the movie (albeit with harbingers of his future troubles). The Queen too comes off surprisingly well (and human). I particularly enjoyed at the end of the movie she expresses her worry to Blair that at the height of the crisis she had a 25% disapproval rating. Blair today (along with virtually all other elected politicians) must think, "if only." Even Prince Charles comes off fairly decently, but the spouses (the Duke of Edinburgh and Cherie Blair and even the deceased Diana) do not nor does the relic Queen Mother. Finally, the Scottish countryside makes a beautiful backdrop for much of the movie. How accurate the film is I cannot say, but I certainly recommend this fine portrayal of an anachronism dealing with modernity.

From the stoicism of the House of Windsor to the charismatic and quite mad leader of one of the former colonies. The Last King of Scotland was actually filmed in Uganda, and there we meet His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. (Yes, that was his official title.) When I was young, I remember the fascination the West had with Amin. While Amin was one of many African tyrants, he seemed to have come from central casting from his physical heft to his ego to his deserved reputation for ruthlessness to his obvious charisma. That he sent the Queen a letter reading, "Dear Liz, If you want to know a real man, come to Kampala [Uganda's capital]" says a bit about this character. Critically, Forest Whitaker is magnificent as Amin, and he too seems a likely and deserved Oscar nominee. The charisma and madness both come dripping out of his Amin, and you can understand how such an individual can come to lead a nation (much to its horror). Without a compelling Amin, this movie could have succeeded, but Whitaker pulls it off brilliantly.

The film is about a (fictional) Scottish doctor who, through happenstance, becomes Amin's personal physician. As he gets closer and closer to this madman, he his forced to recognize the atrocities that are occurring (and in several cases, that he causes) and the risk to his own life. Yet this is not the story of an honest man getting seduced by the amoral politician (think All the King's Men (and READ THE BOOK!)), but a somewhat amoral and compromised individual getting tied to ruthless, corrupt, and quite mad despot. Because Dr. Garrigan is so flawed from the start of the film, it is no surprise that he is so easily seduced. Not surprisingly, the end is not very pleasant for him (although it could have been much worse).

These two films could not present different portrayals of leadership. From the figurehead that is Her Majesty, the Queen, tied to the past and attempting to be oblivious to public opinion to Tony Blair, the master modern politician, to a mad African despot, leadership means different things at different times in different places. A bigger point for a review of two films that both offer much to recommend, and hence I do.



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