Movie Review: Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland (2006)

The movie Last King of Scotland addresses things we don't like to hear about. It tells about a man who commits one of the most heinous crimes of all: bringing false hope to a people desperately in need of hope--betraying his own people. They believe that he is different, that he will be the one to finally bring peace to their country. He does as the former rulers, however, and only ends abusing his power and bringing a new form of dictatorship.

The story of Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), a former dictator of Uganda in the 1970s, is told through the eyes of a fictitious doctor, named Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Last King of Scotland is based loosely on true events. Garrigan has recently graduated from medical school and has no interest in helping his father with the family practice. Instead, he randomly chooses Uganda as his new place to live, work, and play. He ends up working in a small village with tribal people as his patients. Garrigan is the typical idealistic youth. He pictures Uganda as being maybe "the toughest job he'll ever love." His main interest remains scoring with chicks, whether it's a random native he meets on a bus or the wife of his new boss.
Uganda itself is in a time of celebration because Amin has come to power. He is the new President, and the people of Uganda excitedly welcome him to power. "He fights for the people," one national tells Garrigan. On the way home from a political rally, Garrigan gets the chance to meet Amin in person when the President is in need of a doctor. Amin is impressed when Garrigan acts calmly in a crisis, and Amin then offers Garrigan the chance to be his personal doctor.

Garrigan is charmed by the new President. He is charismatic and powerful. And it's nice to be the new pet of a powerful man. The President has three beautiful wives; in particular, Garrigan is charmed by Kay, the third wife. Garrigan leaves his idealistic job as a village doctor for the chance to live the charmed life at Amin's palace. He receives the chance to live in luxury and becomes one of the President's "most trusted advisors." The President also promises that Garrigan can have a great impact on people's lives through political influence. All seems glittery until the President begins to show signs that he is fighting for himself, rather than the people. Garrigan tries to abort his ties with the President, only to be told he can't leave.

What starts out as a dream becomes a nightmare as Garrigan finds himself trapped in a suffocating relationship with Amin. The story turns more menacing as it goes on. Don't be fooled by the happy theme music at the begining of the film. The Last King of Scotland is a movie that turns ugly. The theme music serves to fool us as Garrigan is fooled into thinking that the Ugandans are oh so simple and quaint. Garrigan believes his story will be that he had a fascinating time in Uganda so that he can come home and share stories about his travels. He doesn't know and doesn't want to do know that real men and women are dying just because Amin feels scared.

The movie serves its function because it enveloped me into a chapter of world history of which I was unaware. It made me curious about the events and especially about the person of King Amin. In a way, his story is a typical one. A man comes to power who means to do good, but eventually, power always leads to corruption and abuse. When we believe power is a disposable resource with only so much to go around, we keep our share very closely guarded. As the story goes on, Amin grows paranoid and almost hysterical. He believes everyone is out to betray him. But he put himself in that situation.

The story moves at a good pace and seamlessly changes from a fun film about living in another culture to a shocking tale of death and war. The director did a nice job manipulating the tone of the film. The performances by all characters are strong, but the real star is Forest Whitaker as Amin. He dominates the screen with his stature and his presence. We can see how the people would love this man and look to him for strength. He carries a lot of power with him. As he begins to let the madness of being power hungry overtake him, at times he almost seems sorrowful at his own behavior. But he doesn't seem to be able to do anything different. We despise what he does, but we still feel a little sorry for him at the end. In a way, he is like a boy that never grew up. That boyish enthusiasm is part of his charm, but he lacks the quiet confidence of a man.

The Last King of Scotland is ideal for those viewers that like to watch movies about historical events or other cultures. I had a similar feeling after watching District 9. It will make you think about current events and what types of things are going on in other parts of the world. So often, we skip over the ugly things in the news. But we need to know what other people face on an average day in a war-torn country. If we don't know, how can we act? If we don't act, how will things change? If things don't change, how long before the madness is in our own backyard?