Forest Whitaker is not exactly a flash in the pan. A working actor for more than two decades, he burst into international view with his captivating 1986 performance as the self-deprecating pool shark who hustles Paul Newman in The Color of Money. He appeared in Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam, won awards as the tormented Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird and broke our hearts as the doomed British soldier in The Crying Game. Now he's finally landed a leading role that allows him to display his whole array of talents. In The Last King of Scotland, he plays the monstrous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and dares to portray the man's humanity as well as his evil madness. This performance has already brought Whitaker a host of awards, including a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination in a race where he is clearly the favorite. The Last King of Scotland is worthy, if imperfect, but Whitaker's work in the title role makes the picture a must-see.
Adapted from the novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin MacDonald, The Last King of Scotland covers much of Amin's bloody reign in Uganda throughout the 1970s. Forthrightly fictional, but allegedly based on actual events, the movie proceeds from the viewpoint of a callow Scottish doctor who rises abruptly to join Amin's closest advisors. Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) has barely gotten his medical diploma when he bolts from the British Isles to escape from the stern eye of his saintly father. His goal seems less to help others than to indulge himself. Garrigan finds employment at a rural clinic for the poor, but his major contribution while working there is to make an improper sexual advance on the wife of his boss. Gillian Anderson plays the wife with a fine mixture of allure, complication and decent resolve. She's a terrific character of whom we want to see a lot more than we do, but the script abandons her as brutally as does Garrigan.
The doctor meets the dictator literally by accident one day. Amin's jeep swerves to avoid an ox cart, and the president hurts his hand. Garrigan comes upon this scene, treats Amin's injury and gets invited to the palace in Kampala for a startling job offer as Amin's personal physician and head of the national health program. Reminiscent of Willie Stark's comparable offer to Adam Stanton in All the King's Men, the temptation of this job in Amin's cabinet would have greater resonance if Garrigan had either genuine ambitions to help the needy or any established reservations about his prospective boss. But the doctor is indifferent to the former and thoroughly dazzled by the latter.
The through-line of the narrative in The Last King of Scotland details Amin's swift seduction of Garrigan and, represented by Garrigan, the entirety of the West. But Amin is never the man either Garrigan or representatives of the West want him to be. He is far more wily and far less pliable. Garrigan watches with increasing fear as Amin turns on enemies, real or imagined, with deadly force. Since we do not know what of this story is fact and what is fiction, we don't know if some white advisor actually had an affair with Amin's youngest wife. But the episode here is unconvincing, and its psychedelically rendered climax is simply mystifying.
Nonetheless, we are left with the picture's portrait of Amin, a huge man, possessed of a sure understanding of how to use his size to intimidate and his wit to charm. Ever surrounded by unsmiling body guards toting automatic weapons, Amin menaces any room he enters and any group he addresses. Yet, he seldom voices threats. He tells stories about his own youthful poverty and his sometimes degrading service in the British Colonial Army. He projects himself as a man of the people and promises better jobs, education and medical care for his people, who embrace him as an improvement over his bloody predecessor, Milton Obote.
Privately, Amin knows how to flatter and how to bestow personal favors. He buys Garrigan a Mercedes roadster convertible. He exhibits a keen insight into people's desires and weaknesses. And he seems to view his entire circumstance as a humorous fluke, hence his self-annointed title: His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadjii Doctor Idi Amin, 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. People underestimate Amin if they think he was unaware of the ridiculous nature of such a title. But they would also underestimate him (and did) if they thought they could manipulate him as a Western tool or that he would prove unwilling to wage vicious ethnic war to preserve and consolidate his own power. That he was an evil man is indisputable, but that does not mean that he was stupid or simple, and Whitaker captures Amin's complications brilliantly.
- Self-proclaimed President for Life Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) ruled Uganda with an iron fist.