Comparisons of "The Last King of Scotland" to "Hotel Rwanda" may be inevitable, but that epic had at its heart the portrait of a hero. Despite its stirring title, there is no hero in "Last King". Young Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (you might not recognize James McAvoy as Tumnus from "Chronicles of Narnia") is gangly and wide-eyed and winsome--but we soon realize, and all too bleakly, that little by way of heroism is to be expected from him.
A new doctor, the Scot spins the globe to choose an escape from his well-meaning but over-bearing father and the weight of family expectations. He rejects the first roll of the dice (Canada) with a grimace and lands on Uganda. Next, we see him jolting happily along in a crowded bus in a sunlit Uganda. He is thrilled with the freedom of being away from his family--and coincidentally doing a bit of good in the process. The colors and sounds of the scene are intoxicating, and his exuberance is sympathetic and understandable. It is to McAvoy's credit that he manages to retain sympathy and at least a shade of understanding, even as he (nearly accidentally) becomes the "most trusted advisor" of a man whose reign of terror has been accused of up to 500,000 deaths.
Garrigan has arrived in Uganda just as General Idi Amin (an incredible Forest Whitaker) has completed a military coup and taken over the country. Garrigan wanders into a pitifully understaffed rural clinic with good-hearted, persevering Dr. Merritt and his wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson in a brief but memorable role), knowing next to nothing about the political changes that have taken place. But he happens to be nearby when Amin is in a minor automobile accident, and this coincidence brings him into the dictator's web.
Amin's ability to change moods instantly is perhaps one of his most magnetic qualities. One moment, he is a seething, larger-than-life, barely contained mass of rage. The next, he is laughing heartily as he claps Garrigan across the shoulders, "If I could be from anywhere except Uganda, I would be a Scot! I love everything about Scotland! Apart from red hair, which your women may find attractive, but which we in Africa find quite disgusting."
Perhaps Garrigan never had a chance. Despite our knowledge of Amin's dark side, these and other unexpected moments of humor are amusing and almost sympathetic. Not to mention the appeal of his booming speeches ("I know who you are and what you are. I am you!"), which are enough to sway even those of us with an all too sobering hindsight. He earnestly swears that "as a general, I never eat until my soldiers have eaten first." But he is a dangerous leader because he is so convincing, and charismatic, and can command loyalty and laughter as well as fear. At one point, Garrigan advises him to quell rumors of his bloodlust by calling a press conference and oozing charm, which Amin manages to do unnervingly well. Asking how much of leadership is performance performance may explain how Amin managed to rule so ruthlessly for close to ten years.
Amin takes a fancy to the Scottish doctor, and whisks him from the rural village into the elaborate, heady bravura of high politics. Light-hearted Garrigan sees his new roles as "personal doctor" and "advisor" as fascinating romps. He takes childish pleasure in the extravagant favor and gifts of the president, and is all too willing to turn a blind eye when he is warned of Amin's bloodthirsty policies. But the day of reckoning comes when he is shown just how much his job description has been changed. When a decision misfires, Amin turns on Garrigan in a menacing rage. "You are my most trusted advisor. You should have told me!"
"But you did not convince me!"
And Garrigan cannot bring himself to point out that disagreement could have been a fatal mistake.
"You came to Africa to play the white man," hisses Amin when his favorite has fallen completely out of favor. "But we aren't a game. We're real. This room is real. And when you do die, it will be the first real thing you have done." He is right, in a way--Garrigan has treated his accidental role in Uganda politics with frustrating, almost willful carelessness. Too easily bought by a contagious belly laugh and expensive cars, he is now in too deep and can only plead with Amin to let him go home. And despite everything, Garrigan cannot bring himself to pay the price the British government sets for helping him escape.
McAvoy sensitively portrays this conflicted, vulnerable young man, who likes his pleasures and ignores their prices. He affects few moral qualms over trying to woo Sarah in Dr. Merrit's clinic, or his affair with one of Amin's wives. That unfortunate romantic development is a faltering note, as neither character strikes us as that stupid, but Kay (Kerry Washington) is played so honestly and heart-rendingly that disbelief is willingly suspended. Perhaps Garrigan's foolhardiness and naivete are shown at their worst. This movie contains more than its share of terrible images, and Kay's punishment is shown without flinching to demonstrate just exactly Amin does to those who displease him.
"Last King" is a challenge to all who have served as yes-men to dictators, asking them why they never drew the line, demanding how they could have forgotten what Theo had to learn in PD James' "Children of Men": that a man can be charming, and intelligent, and have shared many, not unpleasant experiences with you--and still be unspeakably evil. Yet it loses something in its focus on Garrigan. In the earlier scenes, his insouciance is a needed counterpoint. As the movie darkens, the attention on his personal journey seems ridiculous when sympathetic characters are being brutally murdered, and a hijacking situation (Operation Entebbe) has stranded hundreds of frightened passengers. Garrigan's story of a man eager for adventure and getting more than he bargains for is interesting, but the movie seems to deserve Amin's accusation of coming to Africa "to play the white man", ignoring the reality of the people there.
Fortunately for the movie, Whitaker's staggering power steals every scene and keeps the movie about Amin. His acting is as nuanced as it is overwhelming, and allows glimpses of the personal demons behind the madness. As Kay comments, "He cannot trust anybody anymore." Amin's paranoia and fear, while incapable of vindicating him, does lend a pathos to what would otherwise be one-note monstrosity. As the self-titled "Last King", Whitaker is unforgettable. The clips of the real Amin we see at the end are chilling as we realize just how deeply Whitaker immersed himself in the role.