There’s no denying that Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of the blood-soaked Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Kevin McDonald’s The Last King of Scotland is mesmerizingly brilliant (even if I think Peter O’Toole’s turn in Venus edges him out of the year’s top spot). It’s gripping in that it catches the charisma, the self-delusion, the madness and the savagery of the man in just about equal measure. It also threatens at times to obscure the other accomplishments of the film, which is about a good deal more than the psychopathology of Idi Amin.
The storyline is every bit as much about Western arrogance in dealing with Third World countries — and the potential price of that arrogance. It’s tempting, as some have done, to look at the film from the safer confines of the Amin story, ignoring the culpability of the Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, Bright Young Things) character, but to do that is to do the film a disservice. If you read the film simply as the story of a naive altruist who gets sucked into the world of the dictator, then you’re not really getting the whole point of the film.
Nicholas Garrigan is a composite character — cobbled together from several real people by writer Giles Foden, on whose book the film is based. He isn’t a bad fellow, but neither is he exactly an altruistic do-gooder. His choice to spin a globe and go to the first spot he lands on isn’t made so much out of a burning desire to help humanity (“make a difference” is the phrase of choice for Garrigan), but out of a desire to get out of Scotland and away from his drab existence. The idea of “making a difference” is only skin deep, and it’s as much his own hedonism and implicit arrogance that gets him pulled into these events as it is his naivete (though the naivete could be said to be born of that arrogance).
It’s apparent in many ways that Garrigan views Amin with a certain amount of superiority — as when he diagnoses the dictator’s insistence that he’s been poisoned as nothing more than flatulence brought on by overeating. It’s also apparent that Garrigan thinks he’s smart enough to cuckold Amin by becoming embroiled in an affair with one of the man’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington, Fantastic Four). And it’s more than a little obvious that Garrigan’s practiced avoidance of the truth about the man he’s serving comes as much from knowing on which side his bread is buttered (hey, the guy gives him a convertible Mercedes, after all) as simple ignorance. It’s when the truth becomes too obvious — and the danger too directly pointed at him — that Garrigan has to realize that the charming monster he’s cozied up to is more monstrous than charming. Any comparisons that might be made to “useful” dictators and despots the West has endorsed so long as it was “in our best interests” to do so, is hardly coincidental. This is the same thing on a smaller, more personal scale.
But the film isn’t unsympathetic to Garrigan, since it so clearly demonstrates the massive — almost cuddly — appeal of Idi Amin. The fellow is such a lovable buffoon that he just couldn’t be a bad guy, just couldn’t be responsible for 300,000 murders of his own countrymen, but he is those things, of course. When Garrigan finally observes this, he wants to see it as a change in Amin, asking when this change started occurring, only to be told by Kay that Amin was always like this. Amin hasn’t changed — Garrigan’s perception of him has. And so has the perception of the viewer. Whitaker subtly suggests the truth throughout the film, building a towering portrait of madness and evil lurking just behind the appealing facade — a facade Whitaker’s performance shrewdly suggests is there just as much for Amin’s benefit as anyone else’s. It’s a chilling creation in a film every bit as unsettling as its main character. Rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke