"Amin: The Rise and Fall," currently at a dozen metropolitan theaters, is occasionally surprising in ways one would not expect an exploitation film to be. Because the subject matter is not only real but already well-reported and documented, there's little shock value in the story's rather brisk development: Idi Amin Dada seizes power in Uganda in 1971, proceeds to terrorize and murder great numbers of his countrymen, and eventually gets run out of Uganda by the Tanzanian army. After assiduously recreating some of the bloodier and more horrific details of that reign of terror, producer-director Sharad Patel adds a footnote: "In eight years, more than 500,000 innocent people lost their lives; this film is dedicated to them.".
Shot in Kenya with an African cast, "Amin" benefits from the overwhelming presence of Joseph Olita in the title role. Olita delivers not only the imposing physical dimen- sion, but the confused, charismatic intensity Amin represented: in the space of a few minutes, he convincingly evolves from a genial Maurice Chevalier dancing dandy to an instinctively combative President Kong to an insecure and obviously mad mix of Nero and Jim Jones. Olita dominates the film just as Amin dominated Ugandan politics and, except for a number of lapses in Wade Huie's screenplay, is almost unbearingly believable.
Certain major problems do arise: although "Amin" is generally well-shot, the cutting is a bit sporadic and some of the lines sound like they were written by a political cadre ("You may kill me, general, but you cannot kill the spirit of the Ugandan people!"). And the thickly textured African-English dialogue is at times hard to understand. Amin's thugs are a little too thuggish, while the white reporters who "have to tell the world what's happening" are a little too heroic (Dennis Hills, who was in fact condemned to death before being shipped back to England, appears as himself).
The film's violence is genuinely shocking: though the filmmakers have necessarily reduced the mass murders to symbolic groups of 6 to 12, there is a lot of blood splattered on walls and streets. The snatching of civilians from the streets captures the effect on those left behind, while Amin's extreme temper and sadistic whims come through quite directly: blowing off a bishop's head, sawing off a dead wife's arms, eating a recently killed enemy's liver. As for the famous raid on Entebbe that began Amin's downfall, it's badly handled: suddenly, the Jewish prisoners are lying around the airport and just as suddenly the Israeli commandos land, release them and leave; Amin hides in a closet.
"Amin" may have been intended as a study of the absolute corruption of power and the frightening heart of darkness represented by a man who often lived up to the Dada in his name, but it's a bit like showing pictures of naked women as an attack on pornography: the emphasis shifts from exhortation and information to titilation and exploitation.