Original Review Date: 3/6/2007
The Last King of Scotland is not just a film about a man some might see as unscrupulous or bloodthirsty. Adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock from Giles Foden’s 1998 novel of the same name, it is the story of two very different lives that become intertwined. James McAvoy plays the first of the two men we are introduced to, the fictional Nicholas Garrigan, a recent Scottish medical school graduate. He travels to Uganda to help the indigent at a free clinic there but is secretly in search of something new, chief among them being fresh experiences. Unfortunately for him, he gets more of that than he could have possibly dreamed of. The second of the two men is real life Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker. Whitaker brings a multifaceted character to the screen that is part showman, vengeful soldier, tyrant, empathic individual and a victim of paranoia all wrapped into one domineering personality, who seventy percent of the time, is charming, charismatic and friendly. This is the side seen in interviews and at the galas Amin throws. It’s the other thirty percent though that generates the film’s tension and drama for all of the characters within its borders. This is the side that comes out when Amin is pushed or believes he is being pushed, by outside forces.
Seizing power from Milton Obote, Uganda’s first prime minister, on January 25, 1971 while Obote attended a Commonwealth summit in Singapore was not for the much-touted benefit of Uganda as a nation but for Amin himself. Obote was planning to arrest Amin for misappropriating army funds and made a critical error by leaving the country, giving Amin the window he needed. After the coup, Amin finds himself in the leadership role of the country he once fought for on the front lines. As the newly elected President of Uganda, Amin has to deal with the remnants of the formerly elected leader’s government. Before these threats to his life become omnipresent, Amin meets Nicolas. The two quickly became friends, Nicholas attracted to the opulence and power Amin represents, Amin to Nicholas’ sanguine demeanor and the fact he has absolutely no agenda of his own since he is an outsider. When violence and insurrections ensue, Amin turns to Nicolas as an advisor or as he says: “my most trusted advisor.” As the assassination attempts increase, so does Amin’s paranoia. It reaches such a level that he begins killing people that work for him because he believes they are traitors. When he decides to inform Amin about something he saw at a Hotel one night, Nicolas unconsciously becomes part of this blood shed. He knows what he tells Amin might result in a death but he does so to protect the President, someone he believes is his friend.
Nicolas, character wise, is presented as man with a conscious, a perfect foil to Amin’s amoral personality but at the same time, Nicolas has absolutely no problem with adultery and breaking up a marriage and having sex with another man’s wife. He isn’t a perfect person; no one is morally perfect in this film. The characters’ actions are more motivated by the circumstances they find themselves in than by their inherent personality. They are not blameless however and most are held accountable for their actions by the third act of the film. Amin and Nicolas are both trapped men, one in a prison of his own fashioning, the other in a quagmire he did not even know he was in until he was waist deep.
Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is a film that gets better and better during its run time. Its tame beginning is very beguiling, leading one to question the validity of its R-rating. When the final credits roll, you wholeheartedly realize why it was rated so. Betraying someone with a small amount of impulse control, not very wise.