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The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland, 2006

This film documents the rise of dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) as seen through the eyes of a (fictional) Scottish physician named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy).

The strength of the film is undoubtedly Whitaker's commanding performance as Amin. It is a powerful portrayal of someone who is equal parts charisma and danger, so that you understand his popularity and his capacity for atrocity all in one go.

McAvoy is good in his role, someone who is swept up in Amin's charm and only realizes too late the true nature of the man. Garrigan repeatedly comes across as a self-serving weasel (running a man over with his car to help Amin escape an attack, tattling on another member of Amin's cabinet, etc), but at the same time it's very, very easy to imagine someone acting in the same way. Garrigan has no real allies, and so his need to keep Amin placated generates strong dramatic tension.

A fundamental problem that I had with the film was its need to center on a non-Ugandan, white outsider. McAvoy is good in his part, but there are many compelling secondary characters who are Ugandan (another doctor who works in the hospital, one of Amin's wives who has been shunned because she bore an epileptic child) who could easily have acted as an audience surrogate. I get that using a white protagonist makes the film more accessible to a Western/white audience, but many times I felt that the movie was overly centered on his character.

A good example of this is in the portrayal of violence in the film. Multiple characters are beaten, murdered, shot, or otherwise harmed by Amin or his people. And yet the film reserves the most dramatic sequence of violence (a sequence of torture) for the white guy. This film is supposedly based on the life of a man named Bob Astles, but the script makes several significant departures from this true story (such as the fact that Astles already worked in the Ugandan government before Amin's rise to power). The film seems to want us to like Garrigan more than he deserves, and I felt as if his character arc was totally stunted by the slightly wishy-washy approach to his character--one minute totally brave and moral, the next minute acting in a way that puts others in mortal danger.

Garrigan slowly realizing the depths of Amin's cruelty is an interesting dynamic, but the way that the story is trapped between real history and a fictionalized character ultimately does it a disservice. I wish that we had been given more time with Kerry Washington's Kay (who's entire subplot centers on her attraction to Garrigan who, according to the film, is a totally irresistible stud muffin), or David Oyelowo's Dr. Junju, the former of which certainly did exist and provides more than enough of an understanding of the kindnesses and cruelties of being in Amin's intimate circle.

A great performance surrounded by a film that could have been a lot better.