February 5, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

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The tale of Idi Amin’s revolution in Uganda is a historically contorted one, and it is also eerily familiar. Amin was once described by the British Foreign services as “a splendid type and a good football player,” and he was at first hailed locally and abroad as a savior of distressed Uganda. The world’s hope was betrayed when within months of seizing the Ugandan throne in 1971, Amin set himself up as “president for life” (eventually he would change his title to “His Excellency Al-Hadji Field Marshal Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Life President of the Republic of Uganda”) and established a regime of suspicion, interrogation and torture under an agency termed the “State Research Organization.” Under Amin, Asians and individuals practicing minority religions as well as intellectuals in general were banished from Uganda under the penalty of death. Predictably, the economy imploded immediately, and the nation itself followed thereafter.

The Last King of Scotland follows Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), the man, for five years as he battles his way to the top in Uganda. It tracks Amin’s meteoric rise and then documents his failure, but in fact, the movie’s main character is not Idi Amin but his young Scottish Doctor, Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy). The Last King of Scotland is more enthusiastically a story of Garrigan’s loss of innocence than it is a story of Amin’s decay.

Unpredictably at first and with distressing speed, we see Amin catapulted to power. After a chance meeting, we see Garrigan’s fate bound to the fate of the dictator. Garrigan becomes addicted to the opulence of his new life (and we find that Amin needs a doctor). Again and again, Nicolas Garrigan is exposed to Idi Amin’s atrocities. Repeatedly, he is able to dismiss these acts, until suddenly he realizes that he can no longer ignore the threat which Amin poses to the nation of Uganda and even to Garrigan himself. It is at this point that the movie assumes a desperate tone; it becomes almost hard to watch.

To a point, The Last King of Scotland is garrulous, though. For as long as possible, the violence of Idi Amin is muted in the narrative and concealed by its very obscenity. It is displayed but cannot at first be successfully impressed upon the viewer. The horrors which Amin perpetrates cannot be immediately gripped. Garrigan is able to shield his conscience from the horror — the genocide which surrounds him — because he is just doing his job, and somehow we the viewers are sheltered by Garrigan’s denial of a reality which should be crystal clear but somehow isn’t.

The story becomes at once heartbreaking and terrifying once Garrigan finally abandons the obstinance to which he so desperately clung. The movie concludes in classic tense, white-knuckle style in an event which has become internationally symbolic of Amin’s presidency: the hijacking of an Air-France jet with 53 passengers by Palestinian activists over Athens and their subsequent redirection to Uganda.

The title suggests Nicolas Garrigan’s heritage, but in fact, the King of Scotland is a military title which Idi Amin had bestowed upon himself as a result of his fabricated “Domination” of the British Empire in battle. On the cover of Time in 1977 (the middle of the “Amin” era), he was subtitled “The Wild Man of Africa” and inside he was described as a “killer and [a] clown, a big-hearted buffoon and a strutting martinet.” He weighed 300 lbs., and “within that girth,” Time observed, “courses the unharnessed ego of a small child and a craze for attention and reverence.”

What strange, intimate phrasing to describe such a man as Idi Amin. This movie is similarly strange and a bit subtle as well — it is not a movie about international politics, nor is it about intrigue, exactly. It is a meditation on the adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely;” it is fascinating, it is personal and it moves horrifyingly fast. It is not a movie to see on a date, but it is absolutely a movie to see.