The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Dictators.  If anything should scare aliens looking down and studying us to see if they should make contact, if there is one thing that should scare them is our penchant throwing one of these guys the reigns of power every now and then.  There have been mad kings, barons and khans throughout the ages, but in the last two centuries technology and communication have been an unprecedented enabling force.

It's not like we've been taught this less over and over again.  For every Thomas Sankara that actually tries to do something good for his country, there is a Kim Jong Il, Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot to make it quite clear that about the only thing they are good for is lining their pockets before leaving in exile, leaving a burning heap of a country behind.  Even those that have in some ways left their countries improved, like Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet, still ended their time with a severe reduction in their population, particularly those that had some differing opinions.

Then, of course, there is that extra special dictator, not satisfied with just draining the treasury or wiping a religion or race of people off the face of the Earth, who has to add that last little flash of crazy.  It takes a special type of dictator to make it to the level of Moammar Khadafy or Saparmurat Niyazov.  Idi Amin, the president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, managed to achieve that level.

Brought to power, largely with help from the British, he overthrew the country's first president Apollo Milton Obote, promising to make Uganda a paradise on Earth and prove to Europe and the Western world that Africa didn't need them to be successful.  Instead, his paranoia led him to constantly attacking anyone he thought was connected with Obote or that he considered a threat to his regime.  In the end, Uganda was over 300,000 people less, and Amin high-tailed it out after he decided to get in a conflict with Tanzania - one that led to the latter company supporting Uganda's resistance movement.

While he eventually turned against the British, and also threw out Uganda's sizable Asian population, one of his most trusted advisers was a man named Bob Astles, who settled in the country while it was still under British rule and stayed on, running an aviation company that had grown into Uganda's first national airline.  There were other Europeans that aided him in different ways during his reign, gathering his favor and wrath throughout his time in power, sometimes barely avoiding the fate of many of Amin's countrymen.  When Giles Foden published The Last King of Scotland in 1998, he wisely combined those Europeans into a fictional Scottish doctor by the name of Nicholas Garrigan, and also wove him into the real-life events in Uganda.  It both made for an interesting, if not always historically accurate, view into the the reign of a madman, but also kept Foden from getting sued, as the people that inspired the story were still alive.  Since the real-life story of Amin has been the fodder for a number of movies, it was inevitable that the book would get made into a film.

Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) has graduated medical school, much to the delight of his father.  However, Nicholas does not intend to remain in Scotland being a family doctor, but intends to get out in the world and do something.  He spins a globe to select a random country and, after rejecting Canada, lands on Uganda.  There he joins a rural mission run by Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson).  His services prove useful, but tensions arise as Garrigan becomes attracted to Sarah, who intends to remain faithful to her husband regardless of her feelings for Garrigan.  Eventually, after attending a rally by Uganda's new president Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), Garrigan is called to aid the man himself after a car accident.  He impresses Amin, who then sends for him to replace his current personal physician and to have a hand in modernizing Uganda's health system.  Reluctant at first, Amin's magnetic demeanor soon has Garrigan convinced that he may do some good in that position.

Over the next few years, despite being concerned with Amin's erratic and despotic behavior, he serves in the position and becomes Amin's most trusted adviser.  He also begins an affair with the dictator's wife Kay (Kerry Washington), that ends in disaster when he gets her pregnant.  Eventually Garrigan must find a way to flee the country.  Meanwhile, Amin, on Garrigan's advice, tries to charm the rest of the world into believing that the rumors of his murderous behavior is a myth, and both Amin and Garrigan see opportunity to bend things to their ends when a hijacked Air France plane lands at Entebbe Airport.

Giles Foden's novel was adapted by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, but it is largely Kevin Macdonald's directing that brings the movie to life.  The story of Amin's rise and fall has been documented many times, as has the story of the situation at Entebbe (which ended with a raid by Israeli special forces to rescue the hostages, and an international embarrassment for Amin).  Where Macdonald departs is that he works hard to make sure the audience understands Amin's appeal.  Whenever the camera focuses on Garrigan and other people he interacts with, things are steady and calm.  At times where major events are happening Macdonald he switches into an almost newsreel or documentary feel.  However, whenever Amin is present, the camera jerks everywhere in a disorienting fashion, as the wild mood swings of the dictator creates a maelstrom that envelops all those around him.  It's the feeling one gets when they are around someone that makes them uncomfortable, but that you can't help but wanting to be in their circle.

On top of that Forest Whitaker seems almost possessed by the spirit of the late dictator.  Supposedly he kept up the accent and the behavior even off screen, largely after causing a delay in filming after he was unable to keep it up when switching personalities.  It is also one of those rare times where the actor playing the man is close enough to make it believable; I have seen so many films and shows with Richard Nixon as a character, and the only one that ever got it right (and that was with heavy makeup) was the older version of the man in The Watchmen.  Objectively, there are differences, but Whitaker for all intents and purposes becomes Amin for this movie, which I'm not sure is a mindset it which I would like to be.

Despite her billing, Gillian Anderson plays really not much more than a bit part in the movie, and that part is a stand-in for Garrigan's conscience, as well as a way of showing his moral flexibility early on.  As for James McAvoy, he does give us someone to root for in the whole thing, although anything that would have happened to Garrigan would have been justified for his turning a blind eye to the genocide happening just outside of Uganda's capitol.  McAvoy goes a long way to selling us that Garrigan, a person who throughout there is no reason to feel sympathy for.  A middle class white kid goes to Africa and bangs a dictator's wife after failing to seduce another married woman, and gets in a heap of trouble for it is not exactly what you want to sell for a main character.  Still, Garrigan is the Western character to keep us anchored in the story, and the fact that he is just as bad as the British secret service envoy he shows disgust toward for his racist views gives us but a taste of the complicated aftereffects of colonialism and what it did to shape entire continents and the world we live in now.

A good portion of what Amin did seems to take a backseat until toward the end of the movie, but again we are seeing things from Garrigan's perspective, which challenges the viewer to maybe take a bit more interest in what actually is happening and wonder why he is so willingly oblivious.  But, then, so were a number of Western powers, who initially saw Amin as a way to keep communists from taking power in another African nation.  The truth about the Cold War is that both the West and the East tried to keep many dogs on leads, and often those dogs had a tendency to turn around and bite their supposed masters.  Sometimes it was hard to tell who was leading who in the desperate need to spread competing ideologies throughout the world.

As it says at the end, Amin was soon overthrown.  What it doesn't say is that it resulted in Obote back into power, only to be overthrown a few years later, and every president since (save the current one, who has managed to keep the country from falling back into its old ways) has fallen to a coup.  For all that Garrigan's character thought he was going to go out and change the world, the only thing he did was cater to his own selfish needs, and nothing changed.  The same lesson can be learned in looking at Amin's reign and what came after.  Yoweri Musevini, though not as flamboyant and certainly a better caretaker of his country, has still followed the same path of manipulating things so that he will never leave power while he is alive unless pried from office.  Western interference has done nothing to change the country's path, except to empower those who wish to seek and hold onto power at any cost.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Time: 123 minutes
Starring: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker
Director: Kevin Macdonald


Popular posts from this blog

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)