Early on in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, I found myself liking Idi Amin. I found myself liking him despite the fact that I knew he was one of the most brutal dictators in world history, killing 300,000 of his African brethren in the ‘70s as leader of Uganda.
How could a film make anyone like such a monster? By showing his humanity. And how do you show the humanity of such a man? By showing him in a relationship with another person. Relationships bring out the best and worst in us. They reveal our vulnerable side. They bring out feelings of love, fear, hate and rage. They cloud our judgment.
In this case, the relationship is with a fictional character named Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who, in the film, is Amin’s physician and closest advisor. Writers Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan and Joe Penhall, who adapted The Last King of Scotland from Giles Foden’s novel of the same name, made the smart choice to combine three real-life men from the book into one fictional protagonist. It allowed them to show Amin’s true nature – good and bad – through his interactions with a man who became like a son to him.
Garrigan is an idealistic young doctor from Scotland who comes to Uganda to find adventure. Through a strange twist of fate, he becomes Amin’s personal physician, drawn to the man, as are Amin’s legions of followers, by the larger-than-life persona Amin presents to the public – boisterous and charismatic. Amin is a magnetic personality who makes people around him feel good about themselves, and so they flock to his side.
Right away, after Garrigan agrees to become Amin’s physician, the two share a special bond, a kind of mutual respect between men that Amin extends to few people. Amin introduces Garrigan to his family, buys him an expensive car and generally wines and dines him in the same way a father might try to impress a son he never knew he had. Understandably, Garrigan is taken in by the man and his generosity.
Eventually, however, Amin begins to show flashes of his true nature, a darker side lying just beneath the surface. But, Garrigan turns a blind eye to Amin’s outbursts because he doesn’t want to think bad of a man he respects. It is only when Amin’s personality changes become too obvious to ignore, that Garrigan realizes the seriousness of his situation. He is too deeply involved in Amin’s inner world now to escape it. As a result, Garrigan is forced to plan his getaway in secret, knowing all the while that if Amin catches him, he will kill him.
Whitaker is brilliant in this film, and in fact, even looks something like the real man. Taking advantage of Macdonald’s skilled direction, he blends just the right amount of humanity and brutality in his portrayal of Amin, flowing in and out of conflicting emotions as easily as if he were changing clothes. Whitaker is so convincing in his ability to play this unpredictability that we as an audience, and the actors onscreen for that matter, are in a constant state of heightened anxiety. Which Amin will rear his head? No one knows. Not even Amin himself.
In this way, Amin has much in common with two other historical figures — Hitler and Richard III. In Downfall, the 2004 Academy Award nominated German film about Hitler’s last days in an underground bunker, Hitler is portrayed as desperate, frightened, and even incoherent through the eyes of the people closest to him. Amin, too, exhibits similar traits as his regime falters.
But, it is Shakespeare’s Richard III with whom Amin shares a most obvious psychotic personality trait – paranoia. Richard III became so paranoid about assassination attempts late in his reign that he took to murdering anyone who so much as looked at him the wrong way. Amin has the same fantasies, and employs the same solutions.
But, the real strength of the film comes from the relationship between Amin and Garrigan, or more appropriately, Whitaker and McAvoy. Their onscreen chemistry makes us believe in and relate to the characters they represent in a way we might not otherwise have been able to understand had their bond been less convincing. McAvoy, who has played complex characters in films like Children of Dune and Band of Brothers, but who is probably most well-known for his portrayal of Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, does an excellent job of portraying Garrigan’s transition from naïve admirer to horrified pragmatist as he realizes the magnitude of his situation.
In Amin, we see the opposite transition – from confident general to paranoid psychotic. As Amin feels Garrigan pulling away, he clings to him emotionally because he can trust no one else around him. This then, in turn, makes it all the more difficult for Garrigan to escape.
Interesting, too, is the fact that Garrigan is not a saint. In fact, in the hands of a less charismatic actor, McAvoy’s Garrigan might have been difficult to like at all. He makes several questionable moral decisions, one in particular which makes us question his sanity as much as Amin’s. He, like Amin, is flawed. The difference is in the degree. Perhaps this is what the writers meant to convey. All of us have the capacity to be saints or devils. If we had a background exactly like Amin’s or Garrigan’s we too might have ended up where they did.
At the end of the film, Macdonald plays actual footage of the real Amin, bringing a striking realism that hits home as we realize this was a real person and that this story, while fictionalized, was based on truth.
But because of the emotional roller coaster we’ve just witnessed, we feel not like we’ve just had a history lesson, but, rather, a lesson in life and the corruptive power of power itself.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Dir. Kevin Macdonald
Stars: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo