Favorite SP Critics

"The Last King Of Scotland"
Dir: Kevin Macdonald

Patricia Ducey

In the early ‘70s, the world exploded in a new freewheeling culture; Idi Amin was African rock ‘n roll. “I am the father of Uganda!” he thunders to an adoring crowd after his coup puts him in power, and wild celebration erupts across the land. Kevin Mcdonald’s must-see The Last King of Scotland paints Amin as an intoxicating mix of nationalist pride and love/hate of colonial tradition. His ebullient, charismatic Amin was indeed Uganda —and therein lies the rub, and the film. For Idi Amin was a state without a nation; as in any state devoid of law and institutions, every one of its “children” thus stood as a potential threat to this precarious leadership. All too soon the murdering begins—the surest path to tighten his grip on a nation built of his will alone.

We come to see in fascinating detail Amin as a complex brute, but the real moral centerpiece of the movie is Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, as simple and pure here as his faun in Narnia) as the Everyman to Amin’s aberration. The movie starts out with familiar memes: the likeable, young hipster, staunchly anti-British and horrified at middle-class life, off to Africa to learn a lesson or two about life, to perhaps save some lives, or to at least despair winningly at the ineffectuality of his compassion. We all know a funny, attractive Nicholas, I’m sure. Like many newly minted grads, young Dr. Garrigan flees what he fears will be a boring, stultified future, a medical practice with Dad, for a gap-year adventure and ‘fun’ as a bush doctor in Africa. But Nicholas is easily seduced: by women, by power, by excitement. In fact, his passive amorality attracts seducers like moths to a flame. How could such a man not meet up with Amin, the aggressive doppelganger to his feckless opportunist?

As he bumps along the road to his bush clinic, we enjoy with him the “authenticity” of a poor but colorful culture. We share his horror at the primitive conditions of the clinic but expect to see him grow as a person and do his plucky best. We even admire him for resisting Amin’s importuning to become his personal physician after Nicholas treats him for a minor injury. But here Mcdonald spins the usual narrative of the white journalist or doctor in a third world country right off its rails—and a much more effective film results. It comes as a surprise when after a few days at Amin’s luxury estate, flattered by the access to power, the chance to really do good as Amin’s health minister, and the non-stop party, he blows off the clinic completely. The rest of the film takes place mostly within the virtual walls of Amin’s orbit of power. Garrigan chooses not to see the slaughter just outside his coddled Eden of pool parties, disco bars, and high level governance—and Mcdonald places us alongside Nicholas in his fool’s paradise.

This film brings us an understandable Amin, the feral politician, who but for the grace of mandatory election cycles could be any politician—but he is more ruthless here than mad. Mcdonald ends with footage of the real Idi Amin staring wordlessly into the camera in a manner akin to the bear in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a look Herzog termed “the implacable stare of nature.” Amin knew who he was, indeed; but who is Nicholas—and who are we? In the end, Amin is a fright, but it is the frivolous, morally vacuous Nick, whose high spirits and thoughtless adventurism leave betrayal and death in their wake, who truly haunts this memorable film.

-- Patricia Ducey

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