'Last King of Scotland' Usurps the Story of Idi Amin

Forest Whitaker exudes the power and paranoia of the brutal Ugandan dictator.
Forest Whitaker exudes the power and paranoia of the brutal Ugandan dictator. (By Neil Davidson -- Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Somewhere in "The Producers," the crackpot Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, melancholy over the way history has treated his leader, points out in petulant counterargument that der Fuehrer "could dance the pants off Churchill!"

It's a classic riff, because it gets exactly at the artist's dilemma in any portrait of evil: Even monsters can dance. And they are dads, have loving kids, wives, pals and human eccentricities. Sometimes they are charismatic, attractive, shrewd and have very nice teeth. In other words: Monsters are human, too.

So, if you tell their story, do you tell a monster's story or a man's story?

"The Last King of Scotland" wrestles with this one all the way through. Ultimately it uses the Fuehrer-could-dance take on the flamboyant African despot Idi Amin, said to be responsible for the murder of 300,000 of his fellow Ugandans during the 1970s before he finally quit the country and fled to a more hospitable zone to while away the hours. (He died three years ago -- in bed, one assumes -- in Saudi Arabia.)

The movie uses a fictional device to get up close and personal and also to see the oversize ex-boxer first as human and only later (and almost too late) as monstrous. Initially, Amin seems almost childish, taking pleasure in the luxuries of stuff and flesh that his position of power gives him access to, indulging in his talent for whimsy (an admirer of the Scots, he took "King of Scotland" and "Conqueror of Britain" among his official titles) and, in the beginning at least, proving himself a powerful, empathetic orator who could rally the African street. I'm not sure the fictional device works, because Amin, representing a human extreme, is so much more interesting than his witness, a young Scottish doctor of prosaic appetites and self-interests. Still, the director, Kevin Macdonald, has decided we need a pair of Western eyes through which to gaze upon such extravagance, and that we need also to see the brains behind the Western eyes grow and change, as a barometer of Amin's evil.

So the story is no true, historical chronology of Idi Amin Dada, but instead takes its plotline from a novel by Giles Foden. It discounts Amin's upbringing, his long service in the King's African Rifles of the British Army, his many campaigns and battles, his rise through the administration of Milton Obote to chief of staff of the newly formed Ugandan Army, and the coup by which he deposed Obote, when Obote discovered irregularities in army accounting and was about to have him arrested. It never explains that the 300,000 people Amin murdered, in a fit of paranoia, were mostly of the Acholi and Lango tribes. All that is passed over; instead it finds him in power, and when it leaves him he's still in power -- it's just that the pile of corpses has become too high for the world to ignore.

The witness to all this is one Nick Garrigan (James McAvoy, who was Mr. Tumnus in "The Chronicles of Narnia"!), a young Scot just graduated from medical school, fleeing a dreary life as his dad's partner in a rural practice. Spinning a globe and plunging a finger on the blur, he pins his hopes on Uganda, so recently removed from British colonialism. Something of a sensualist, young Dr. G finds the lure of Africa irresistible: He loves the bustle, the music, the freedom and the available indigenous women. Working at a rural aid station, he's on the verge of consummating an affair with his supervisor's comely blond wife (Gillian Anderson).

Macdonald has an equally fetching feel for the continent. Possibly it's that the place is so instantly charismatic that in merely pushing the camera button to On, any Westerner records the color, the music, the pulse, the dust, the tragedy, the doom, the grandeur, all the bewildering paradoxes that make the place unique on Earth. Or possibly, it's that Macdonald's cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has the sensitivity to catch the mundane with the spectacular. Whatever the explanation, the movie has a powerful sense of what Africa looks and feels like; you can almost smell it.

Fate rescues Garrigan from his rural debaucheries, in the form of a large steer that has wandered into the roadway and encountered the dictator's Mercedes-Benz hurtling along at 60 miles per, leaving both large entities wounded in the dust. The doctor hustles into action, first wrapping the bellowing tyrant's sprained wrist, then, when nobody else will do it, gathering up the dictator's pistol and putting the screaming, crippled animal down. This is a little cute for my taste, but by Jove, the big guy likes what he sees, and soon he's invited the young chap to come to Kampala as his private physician, just in time for the auto-da-fe.

As Amin, the American actor Forest Whitaker is extraordinary. He makes you see Amin's charisma and cunning and understand the way in which he could (not that there's any record he ever did) reach out and embrace a younger, more impressionable man and woo him with sexual opportunities and luxuries and fast cars, until the young fellow himself is all but a party to the activities of what Amin called the "State Research Bureau," which seemed mostly to involve bayonet use in the presidential mansion basement. Whitaker also makes you feel quite a bit of Amin's paranoia, dating from an assassination attempt and exacerbated by tribal animosities, that produced the high death count. Sweaty, physically imposing, wilting through his medal-festooned tunics, he seems like someone out of O'Neill's "Emperor Jones."

But Whitaker and Sean Penn -- star of the similarly flawed "All the King's Men," almost already vanished -- probably get together in some small Sunset Boulevard club and drink the night away, complaining that movies in which they star as political demagogues and rogues of the first order turned out, upon delivery, to be about sensitive white boys.

It's hard to warm up to the young Scot. It may be that Macdonald dresses McAvoy's Garrigan in the threads of the early '70s -- bell-bottoms, psychedelic ties, ruffled shirts and the like -- so that he seems more like a refugee from Three Dog Night than a doctor in Africa; possibly that's in the higher traditions of realism, but it distances him from contemporary audiences. As well, the young man's constant agitating for sexual satisfaction ultimately seems feckless and disreputable. Finally, his first commitment has always been to the self rather than the patient.

Then the movie turns progressively more incredulous. Nick tumbles into an affair with one of Amin's wives (played by Kerry Washington); when he gets her pregnant, he tries to send her for an abortion, then plans to perform one himself because he knows if she gives birth to a white child, she will be killed. Ultimately he conspires with British intelligence to murder the dictator, a plan that goes pathetically awry, and his fate veers off into Bondian excess, an escape attempt amid freed hostages -- non-Jewish passengers of the PLO hijacking at the Entebbe airport -- a few hours before the Israeli airborne arrives to end the crisis with some scientific applications of Uzi sharpshooting.

In the end, Amin has disappeared from his own movie, and Whitaker from his own sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated vehicle. Oh, but stay tuned for the latest on James McAvoy. Strange and a little unsettling.

The Last King of Scotland (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely graphic violence.

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