Portraits of living people are hard enough, as Helen Mirren accomplished splendidly in The Queen, but it’s debatable whether or not Forest Whitaker had a harder time portraying the notorious Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. While the real Amin is both dead and less well known to Western audiences than the British monarch, Whitaker had to walk a fine line in playing a man who was simultaneously a butcher and a darkly comic caricature. That the actor was able to a walk off with the Best Actor Oscar, despite not playing the lead role, is testament to his success. Whitaker dominates this movie, which is fortunate. This film is exceedingly well-made, but suffers problems that are mostly a necessary result of its structure.
Nicholas Gaffigan (James McAvoy) is a young Scottish medical school graduate who is utterly appalled by the prospect of going into practice with his father. He wants something more exciting, so he points his finger randomly at a globe and it lands on Uganda. He heads off and winds up working at a mission under Doctor Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his wife, Sarah (a very un-Scully-like Gillian Anderson), at roughly the same time that Amin has overthrown President Obote and seized power.
Nicholas is not portrayed as some altruistic do-gooder, but as a bored young man seeking adventure. When Idi Amin comes to their village and wows the audience with a speech, the young Scot responds to the man much like he would a rock star. Later, Amin is injured in a minor car accident and Nicholas is the nearest doctor. The president is charmed by his directness (and how the doctor deals with the cow also injured in the wreck) and before long, he is invited to visit the President in the capital of Kampala and become his personal physician. Amin’s considerable charm as well as the lure of power and prestige quickly overcomes his feelings of commitment to the Merrits (and his mostly unrequited attraction to Sarah).
Nicholas is suddenly a member of Amin’s inner circle and we see both how the man could be initially welcomed as a liberator and ultimately feared as a dictator. There are early glimpses of Amin’s paranoia and signs that the president is as completely out of his depth as the young doctor is.
At first, addicted to the trappings of status, Nicholas is unwilling to admit that anything is wrong in Uganda (and thus endanger the privileged status he hold), even when approached by Mr. Stone (Simon McBurney) a British Foreign Service officer who might have had something to do with Amin’s rise to power but who now thinks another president might be better for British interests.
Nicholas is able to do some good, interceding on his behalf of Amin’s epileptic son, which leads to an affair with Kay (Kerry Washington), one of the dictator’s many wives, and has escalating consequences as the story goes on.
The real problem with The Last King of Scotland is that it is told through the eyes of someone who is blind to the horrors of the Amin regime, keeping them offstage is minimizing their impact. When they final hit home for Nicholas, however, it’s horrible because it is happening to him, somehow subordinating Uganda’s misery to this young white man’s misfortune.
All of Nicholas’ errors in judgment catch up with him at roughly the same time that German and Palestinian terrorists bring their Israeli hostages to Uganda’s Entebbe airport. Be forewarned that this movie ends with a scene that is definitely not for the squeamish.
It would have been better if Amin (or another African character) were allowed to occupy the center of this story. Nicholas’ story seems to trivialize Amin’s crimes, making them a personal inconvenience to a young white European. It’s akin to making Joaquin Phoenix or Nick Nolte the main character of Hotel Rwanda. His falling in love with Gillian Anderson’s character is also somewhat of an unnecessary cliché used to create artificial conflict when offered the post of Amin’s doctor. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Forest Whitaker’s performance is able to blast away the other problems and create a compelling reason to see this movie.