September 21, 2006
|The Last King of Scotland (R)
A young Scottish doctor decides to spend his post-education years getting the crap scared out of him by a possibly cannibalistic dictator in The Last King of Scotland, the based-on-a-true-story film about Idi Amin as seen through the eyes of his personal physician.
Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) graduates from medical school and faces a future working with his father, which is terrifying enough to cause him to scream in panic. Nicholas decides to spin the globe and go the first place his finger lands. (Well, the first place his finger lands is Canada, so he spins again.) He lands on Uganda so off we go on a pre-maturity trip!
The first part of his experience goes fairly well. He rides a bus through a coup ó Aminís army is taking over from the dictator before him. The people are happy, particularly an attractive girl who explains that Amin is fighting for the people. Nicholas and the girl have a little coup-inspired whoopee and then he continues on his way to the mission where he is scheduled to provide care for the native types. There he meets an endlessly kind and giving doctor (Adam Kotz) and his less saintly wife Sara (Gillian Anderson), also a good person but one a bit tired of living in her husbandís shadow. She takes a liking to Nicholas in large part because he takes a liking to her. But Sara is smart enough to see that Nicholas is in the careless stage of youth and she doesnít give in to his advances.
His youth nonetheless concerns her, even more so when they go to see Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Nicholas seems taken in by the equally careless but infinitely more dangerous dictator, especially after Idi Amin asks Nicholas to bandage a hurt hand. Amin, who has a strange affection for all things Scottish, likes Nicholas and eventually asks him to come to Ugandaís capitol and be Aminís personal physician. Nicholas at first wants to hang out around Sara some more but is easily seduced by the idea of helping to direct the countryís new healthcare system when he isnít tending directly to the needs of the leader.
Nicholas enjoys this proximity to fame and the glamour associated with running a country, even a dirt poor country that has always been the victim of its rulersí theft. He defends Amin to other British detractors, including Nigel (Simon McBurney), a weaselly member of the intelligence community. Nigel, racist and snobby, nonetheless isnít fooled by Aminís public talk about providing healthcare and freedom to all of his people. He gives the naÔve Nicholas a knowing smirk ó a Scot, Nicholas is predisposed to hate this very English man.
Nicholas isnít eternally fooled, however. The first serious problem he has with Amin is Aminís treatment of a possibly epileptic son. Instead of allowing the boy to go to the hospital and receive treatment, Amin keeps the child and his mother (Kerry Washington) at armís length. Nicholas finds himself wanting to get a little closer with the childís mother ó and if youíre naÔve enough to hit on one of a dictatorís handful of wives, I supposed it would make sense that youíd be shocked, shocked when you noticed other people in the government start to disappear.
What works best in this film are the unapologetic silliness of Nicholas, the sheer madness of Amin and the places these two elements meet. At one point, Nicholas begins to understand what a perilous position heís put himself in and tries to convince Amin to let him leave the country. But, clearly not understanding the depth of Aminís paranoia, his fascist approach to government and his frightening definition of loyalty, Nicholas attempts to take his leave by telling Amin that he disagrees with some of his decisions. This seems breathtakingly foolish and the movie sees it that way too. Nicholas, despite his hatred of the look-down-their-noses-Brits, has come to Uganda with the idea of meeting a simple people and gaining exotic experiences. He doesnít seem to realize, as another character aptly points out, that these people, their troubles and their dangers, are real. Watching the foolish westerner trip through a countryís suffering is a bit ďwhite manís burdenĒ but it also seems sort of a clever metaphor for what happens whenever westerners come bumbling into developing nations.
Amin, as Nicholas points out, has a wide and deep streak of immaturity about him ó most dictators do share traits with angry toddlers. But while your average 2-year-old can only throw a tantrum on the floor of a Target, Amin could level villages, torture supposed conspirators in gruesome ways and dismember those he believes have betrayed him. This makes him, as Nicholas realizes way too late, terrifying.
Whitaker and McAvoy both fall into the black hole of their characters and give performances in this messy tale that stay with you long after the movie ends. I like that this movie has no heroes, no good guys (or rather, none that live) and leaves you feeling a bit embarrassed for its protagonist. B+
ó Amy Diaz
Comments?†Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com