David Broder reviews The Last King of Scotland
Kevin MacDonald's film charts the progress of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who, by chance, becomes a close aide to 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).
Attracted by Amin's charm, affection for Scotland and rhetoric for "a new Uganda", Nicholas leaves his post at an aid mission in the countryside and accepts the offer to become Amin's physician, a decision which brings him into close personal contact with the dictator.
Drawn into the inner circle of a paranoid leader, Nicholas is appointed by Amin as a leading aide, called upon to carry out government responsibilities far beyond the remit of his job. Amin asks his advice on every matter of government policy, and Nicholas is made into the tool of a murderous regime. At first nervous about his role, he winds up informing on the behaviour of the health minister, of whom he is suspicious, and rebuffs British government and media
criticisms of Amin.
The British are of course implicated in Amin's coming to power, but subsequently turn against him. Half-baked Scottish nationalist Nicholas hates the duplicitous "English" Foreign Office representatives, who hope to use him as a tool in their diplomatic armoury. Amin is a sort of father figure for Nicholas, whose admiration for the dictator is further sealed by Amin's past in a Scottish regiment in the British Army and "rags to riches" story.
The most interesting aspect of the film is its representation of a naive young man falling into the clutches of a charming, if neurotic, leader. Coming from a rather ordinary Scottish home, Nicholas has been thrust into the cut-and-thrust of the world of machine politics, all on the basis of personalities, personal loyalty, and the "impressive" lifestyle on offer at the president's court.
Whitaker's vivid portrayal of Amin brings to life the extraordinary personality and strange attractiveness of one of Africa's most notorious tyrants. His imposing performance fully deserves his "Best Actor" Oscar nomination. The shift in focus from the eccentric facade of the regime to its murderous core is entirely convincing. At first charmed by Amin, we are then sharply made aware of his cold criminality. He is a buffoon with blood on his hands.
The director highlights Idi Amin's bizarre taste, such as referring to himself as "the King of Scotland", wearing hundreds of World War Two medals and playing the international statesman with his ties to Libya and Palestine. However, the film does not mention Amin's offer to mediate in Northern Irish peace talks, nor the title he conferred upon himself: "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular".
Nicholas does become more and more aware of the turmoil going on around him. Although he at first ignores the mass bloodshed, his relationship with Amin becomes increasingly stormy, particularly as he falls into an affair with Kay, one of the tyrant's wives. He begins to see that he is being used as "cover" for the regime, a face to give legitimacy to the slaughter. Amin becomes less friendly. Nicholas's qualms, muted at first, become very real fears and his
inner humanity, always simmering, ultimately comes to the fore.
Next, perhaps, a film could be produced featuring the antics of a naive, moustachioed Scottish politician who becomes the lapdog of an even more impressively moustachioed tyrant, spreading his propaganda in the West.