Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney. Rated R.
The Last King of Scotland is not a true story, nor is it primarily the story of Ugandan president Idi Amin, the man
responsible for the deaths of 300,000 of his countrymen during an eight-year reign that ended in 1979. It is the story of
Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who falls into Amin’s good graces, and stays there long enough
to regret it. Based on Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland is a tense thriller, but it is also
a chilling study of two men whose appetites lead to their downfall.
Amin (Forest Whitaker), who playfully referred to himself by many grandiose nicknames – among them, “Lord of All
Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and, yes, “King of Scotland” – is shown here as a charming
killer, capable of winning over (for a time) the international press corps with his wide smile and bellowing laugh, but just
as capable of slaughtering anyone perceived as a threat. He seduces people like Garrigan with vague pledges to build an independent
Uganda filled with roads, schools and hospitals. Others applaud him for who he is not: Milton Obote, his predecessor, who
used the presidency to line his own pockets.
For all his assumed geniality, though, Amin is wildly unpredictable, living in fear of enemies both real and imagined. His
violent tantrums make him seem mad, and indeed, there is evidence that Amin may have actually suffered from some mental illness.
But the man, portrayed so masterfully by Whitaker, is more shrewd than crazy. He hides the monster within, constantly sizing
up those around him and preying on their weaknesses. Once they’re in his vise-like grasp, he squeezes them until they
bleed, and Garrigan is no exception.
The young doctor is an easy mark. Just out of medical school, Garrigan is restless and eager to travel – anywhere, it
seems, so long as it’s far from home. Randomly, he chooses Uganda, where he has vague aspirations to help the poor villagers,
but not the requisite work ethic. Garrigan is an adventure-seeker, and though the idea of being of globe-traveling altruist
has some romantic appeal, he doesn’t really want to get his hands dirty. A friend, Sarah (Gillian Anderson), senses
this; Amin exploits it. After a chance meeting with the president, Garrigan is invited to become his personal physician. Amin
plays on his vanities, feeding his youthful ego with lavish praise and expensive gifts. Garrigan takes the job, and before
long his hands are soaked with blood.
The Last King of Scotland is a political horror story, particularly relevant today, about the dangers of naiveté and
unwitting complicity. Garrigan, a fictitious character based on several of Amin’s confidantes, foolishly buys into the
empty rhetoric of a homicidal bully, never questioning his brutal reality. In the end, Garrigan is more a dupe than a malicious
accessory; he embraces ignorance, unwilling to sacrifice his privileged lifestyle for the sake of doing what’s right.
McAvoy’s boyish charms make those choices seem more forgivable, but Garrigan pays a steep price for his reticence.
Garrigan, of course, is forever in the shadow of the furious demagogue, whose excesses and mercurial menace lend him undeniable
magnetism. Whitaker’s performance as Amin is almost certainly the most powerful of his career. He strikes the perfect
balance of calculated cool and wild-eyed fervor, giving Amin a presence that is simultaneously riveting and terrifying. His
charisma is exceeded only by his sociopathic rage, a reminder that even the most dangerous killers sometimes greet you with