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The Last King of Scotland B
Year Released: 2006
Kevin Macdonald has made two of the best documentaries in the past decade (1999's One Day in September and 2003's Touching the Void) first by picking fascinating topics, and then by blending traditional elements such as interviews and historical footage with fictionalized reenactments. Some believe it blurs the line between fact and fabrication (though I'd argue that the line was obliterated long ago), but the results rank among the most compelling and memorable cinematic efforts of recent years. The Last King of Scotland is his first stab at more conventional filmmaking, adopting a biographical story and translating it through an author's suppositions. Though not quite as arresting as his more straightforward documentaries, it still attains a measure of power and thoughtfulness, suggesting that his versatility may have only begun to be tapped.
Like his earlier films, it starts with an excellent subject: in this case, Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator who massacred hundreds of thousands of his own people during a brutal reign in the early 1970s. The Last King of Scotland derives its name from one of Amin's numerous self-proclaimed titles, professing a bizarre love for All Things Tartan which accentuated his addled, semi-comic image. Indeed, Macdonald focuses largely on Amin's charming eccentricities and the way they hid his murderous insanity until it was far too late. The film makes the sad mistake of too many similar projects by presenting his story through the eyes of a white man -- Scottish physician Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a fictional character who serves as Amin's personal doctor -- but makes up for it by integrating an outsider's perspective into the overall message. The dictator was in part a product of colonialism, after all: serving as a soldier in the British army early in life and enjoying British support during the 1971 coup which put him on the throne (they viewed him as a solid anti-communist and proponent for democracy). It seems proper, then, that a white man should be on hand when it all goes bad.
Garrigan (well-played with exuberant naiveté by McAvoy) arrives in Uganda from under the thumb of his autocratic father, looking for a little adventure and a way to do some good with his medical degree. He first sees Amin (Forest Whitaker) when the newly installed ruler visits the village where Garrigan is working as a clinic physician, then has a chance to treat him following a minor auto accident. The dictator's flashy clothes, fast cars, and strangely deluded sense of self-effacement evoke all of the excitement and escapism the young Scot is looking for: a more personalized version of Her Majesty's colonial entitlement. When Amin offers Garrigan the job of personal doctor, the lure ultimately proves too gaudy to refuse.
Though DP Anthony Dod Mantle brings a rough beauty to the countryside (filmed on location in Uganda), The Last King of Scotland relies largely on the strength of the two leads to convey its themes. Together, they plot a course of slow seduction as Garrigan falls under Amin's spell just as the Ugandan people do. Whitaker is an absolute revelation here, his panda-bear persona slipping effortlessly between historical icon and disturbingly damaged human being. Even in the early days, the dictator's clownish exterior masks troubling instabilities: flashes of ego, claims of prophetic dreams, the ominous assumption that others exist only as extensions of himself, and so on. But rapture and admiration hold Garrigan so tightly that he can't see where those depths lead. Only when he is too enmeshed to escape does the terror and violence creep into his perceptions. Hundreds of thousands are tortured and killed -- including members of Amin's own government -- while racial cleansing arises when the nation's 50,000 Asians are expelled from the country. Rumors of cannibalism surface, along with similar horrors such as the mutilation and dismemberment of supposed traitors. Garrigan lives in denial for most of it, believing his host to be a good man making difficult choices. But when Amin's paranoia turns toward the young Scot -- and worse, when the British government starts to blackmail him for intelligence -- the price of his gullible loyalty becomes horrifyingly clear.
Macdonald uses Garrigan as a means of exploring how men like Amin come to power. Nobody in the West quite took the dictator seriously, and his promises to the Ugandans -- free elections, new infrastructure, an abolishing of the secret police -- spoke to hope and faith in a brighter tomorrow. The combination of seeming harmlessness and populist enthusiasm receded to blood-soaked madness only gradually. Hitler was a joke for a while too, after all, and at the time, some in the West felt he could be useful to their purposes just as Amin was 40 years later. Macdonald has a strong handle on that Faustian bargain, bolstered by Whitaker's brilliant performance and McAvoy's quieter desperation. As an examination of leadership -- and how those close to monsters can be perverted into monsters themselves -- it displays considerable potency.
Dramatically speaking, The Last King of Scotland is on shakier ground. Undue convenience plagues the story at several moments, while the climax hinges on some B-movie bad-guy idiocy, despite its connection to actual events. The characters are richly developed, however, including Kerry Washington's portrayal of Amin's tragic second wife, and Gillian Anderson, shining through a spotty accent as Garrigan's early confidant. While plausibility sometimes suffers, the film proves illuminating even when it plays fast and loose with the facts. As storytelling, it could use some fine tuning, but it keeps its dark premise close to its heart at all times. Considering Macdonald's earlier work, I suppose The Last King of Scotland is a bit of a letdown, and trouble always arises when fiction and fact tread so closely together. But one can hardly blame the director if he chooses to test new waters, making the film not so much a stumble as a simple shifting of creative gears.
Review published 09.27.2006.
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