Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who terrorized his country in the 1970s and died in Saudi Arabian exile in 2003, granted himself many outlandish titles during his heinous eight-year reign, among them President for Life, and Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea. The self-proclaimed flourishes, so silly and even so playful, contrast all the more obscenely with the reality of Amin’s brutality: Mercurial and paranoid, he presided over the torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of people, even while his charisma and flamboyant eccentricities continued to charm the international press. Here was a monster who could turn from clown to executioner in a blink.
Adapted from the acclaimed 1998 novel of the same name by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland takes its title from another of Amin’s idiosyncrasies: The African despot had a fondness for all things Scot. And I can’t think of a better actor to toggle between media-savvy jester and stone-cold killer than Forest Whitaker, who, even dressed in a kilt, conveys serious menace along with mania. A massively built man who projects the energy and nimbleness of someone daintier, he barrels through this story with great control masquerading as recklessness. Yet Amin is just half the story — and Whitaker, given such rich source material, carries the easier half. The movie views Amin through the eyes of his personal physician, in a highly novelistic interpretation of reality. (Amin did have a Scottish doctor, but this one is a fabrication.) Recent med school grad Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), naive as Candide, arrives in Uganda on a whim, partly to do good and partly to party, which he does almost immediately with a fellow doctor’s wife (Gillian Anderson). Garrigan is intrigued by Amin, and blind to his luxury-loving employer’s evil far longer than he should be. Eventually, though — and in an escalation of stakes that tips the movie into the realm of overheated thriller — the truth becomes a threat to his life. The conclusion suggests, quite questionably, that only through the testimony of white men like the doctor could black Ugandans influence world awareness of Amin as a mass murderer.
The balance of star power would appear to be off-kilter — McAvoy so slight and Orlando Bloomish in a fictional role against Whitaker, who is so substantial in an all-stops-out biographical re-creation. But that disparity turns out to be the point on which the picture pivots. Drawing on a documentary visual style he deftly employed in One Day in September and Touching the Void, director Kevin Macdonald uses McAvoy’s boyishness to treat Garrigan’s apolitical foolishness as yet another damn mess in one African country’s hell. Indeed, the existence of people like Garrigan is one more reason why someone like Amin prevailed for as long, and as tragically, as he did.