In politics, as in most other aspects of life, we make choices and drive events either by our action or inaction -- but at what point do the choices we make cross the line into the realm of moral culpability? The Last King of Scotland, directed by documentary filmmaker Kevin MacDonald, explores this issue through the fictionalized tale ("based on true events") of a young Scottish doctor who quite unexpectedly finds himself the personal physician and closest adviser to one of the world's most notorious dictators, former Ugandan president Idi Amin. The young doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, who's having one heck of a good year, with roles in two other major fest films, Starter for Ten and Penelope), has come to Uganda to escape the boredom and constriction of life as a family doctor, working with his father. Garrigan seeks adventure and excitement and, in his spare time, wants to help make Uganda a better place, so he goes to work in a remote medical clinic. At the clinic, he meets Sarah (Gillian Anderson), the wife of the doctor who runs the place, and soon becomes enamored of her.
Garrigan has come to Uganda just as the country is on the cusp of political change: The country's president, Milton Obote, has been overthrown in a coup by the army's chief of staff, General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), and Amin has declared himself president. Chance and circumstance bring Garrigan and Amin together; after an accident involving Amin's motorcade and a cow, Garrigan is called upon to fix Amin's injured hand. When no one else will kill the injured cow, who is bellowing in pain, Garrigan snatches the president's gun and disposes of the beast himself. Amin is both furious that Garrigan took his gun, and impressed that he took charge of the situation. When he finds out that Garrigan is Scottish and not British, Amin likes him even more -- he seems to think that he has common ground with Scotland, since both Scotland and Uganda have freed themselves of British rule. A few days later, Garrigan is summoned to the presidential residence, where Amin offers him the position of personal physician. At first Garrigan wavers, remembering his commitment to the clinic, but soon enough he is swayed by Amin's charismatic presence as well as the wealth, comforts and perceived prestige of being a close associate of the president of Uganda.
For a while, things seem to be going well for Garrigan; Amin says he thinks of him like a son, and that Garrigan is his closest adviser. It doesn't take long, though, for the fraying edges of Amin's sanity to begin to unravel. Amin is a paranoid, superstitious man who trusts no one; he is frequently irrational and says and does bizarre things, but because of his power and the thugs in his army, no one can do anything to stop him. At first, Garrigan is so drawn in by Amin's powerful presence and larger-than-life personality that he doesn't want to see what's happening around him, even as people who speak out against Amin disappear, and troops slaughter citizens en masse on Amin's orders. It soon enough becomes clear to Garrigan that he no longer has a choice about whether to stay in Uganda or go home; Amin has Garrigan's passport taken away, and refuses to allow him to go home.
The Last King of Scotland is a somewhat uneven film. Garrigan is a weak and inherently unlikeable character who makes innumerable stupid and selfish decisions. He apparently fancies himself a ladies' man, or at least perceives having sex with many women to be part of his adventure; when he turns his attentions to Kay (Kerry Washington), Amin's third wife, you just know things aren't going to end well. Having an affair with the wife of an unstable and most likely insane dictator with an army of machine-gun armed thugs at his disposal is just never a good idea, but Garrigan is either too solipsistic or too stupid to figure that out and this, along with almost every other decision he makes, ultimately makes him a complicit cog in Amin's brutal, chaotic machine.
What makes the film compelling in spite of the utter irrationality of Garrigan's actions is Whitaker, whose presence as Amin is unbelievably commanding. Whitaker, always a fantastic actor no matter what role he takes on, doesn't just act the part of Amin, he is Amin, complete with the dictators characteristic facial expressions, gestures and voice. The character of Garrigan exists, basically, to allow us a window into what it might have been like to be caught in the midst of Amin's reign of terror. The real tragedy of this tale is not Garrigan and what befalls him, but what Amin does to his country; as a Ugandan who came up through the ranks of the British army, Amin initially had the support of the British and American governments, and he could have effected some real, long-term, positive changes for his country. Instead, obsessed more with women, wealth and guns than the political realities of running an independent nation, Amin becomes increasingly paranoid, and his actions increasingly irrational. This is the real heart of the story of Idi Amin, and I would have liked more to have seen the film focus on this perspective: What drove this complex man, born poor and abandoned by his parents, raised in the British army, which he both loathed and adored, to become one of the world's most brutal dictators, ultimately responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Ugandan men, women and children? Because we see the story from Garrigan's perspective, the film focuses more on his plight, the danger he's in, and the increasing uncertainty that he will escape Uganda with his life and his ethics intact, than on what drives Amin.
For the plot revolving around Garrigan to work, we need Garrigan to be a character we can care about, but there is just nothing about him that drives the viewer to feel much sympathy for him; even as things get really bad, there's a part of you that thinks, "Well, that's what he gets for being so incredibly stupid." I suppose it depends upon whether you view Garrigan as a naive innocent caught in circumstances that escalate beyond his control, or a morally blind, self-absorbed man-child more concerned with himself than what he sees happening around him. In that respect, Garrigan also serves as a symbol of white Western involvement in African nations. There is a fine moral haze around the issue of white Westerners trying to "better" life in third-world countries -- by which we usually mean, bringing life there closer to our own standards. Is it possible that the underlying anger in Uganda over years of British colonization contributed to allowing a man like Amin to rule the country for eight years, terrorizing and murdering anyone who crossed his path? Was it such a relief for the people of Uganda to be free of British rule that they, like Garrigan, were willing to look the other way, at least for a while, from the methods Amin used to retain control? And how complicit does all that make the British government (and the American government as well) in the bloodbath that ensued?
If you look at the character of Garrigan not so much as an individual, but as a symbol of white colonialism, then his lack of moral turpitude, his "taking" of Ugandan women sexually, his own willingness to be blind to Amin's dark side so long as he was benefiting and not in direct danger himself, might be viewed as an allegory rather than a character study, in which case Garrigan's lack of any real growth becomes less relevant. Although the film's focus on Garrigan rather than Amin weakens the story somewhat, ultimately Whitaker's powerful and remarkable performance makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing. When Whitaker was on screen, I was riveted; when he wasn't, I was waiting to see him again. Whitaker carries the film on his broad shoulders, creating a realistic and frightening portrait of one of the world's most elusive and notorious figures.