Like any good little white liberal, I cringe at those stories that filter the painful experiences of “other” people through the eyes of a white protagonist. You know the type: the courage and suffering and strength of those “others” are relevant only insofar as they serve as a crucible for the heroic white man’s personal growth. When I saw the previews for The Last King of Scotland, which portrays the horrific rule of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as experienced by a Scottish physician, I assumed it was another one of those movies. I was absolutely wrong.
Last King is actually, in large part, about the perversity and immorality of white people treating Africa as their personal playground for self-discovery. The screenplay, written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based upon the novel by Giles Foden, pulls no punches: Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, their protagonist, might be naïve, but he’s no innocent. A bad version of this story would have let you anticipate a happy ending for him. A mediocre version would have made you wonder whether a happy ending was possible. This movie goes further: it urges you to consider whether a happy ending for Nicholas is even appropriate.
Nicholas isn’t a bad man, but he’s reckless and selfish and an astonishingly poor judge of character. Newly graduated from medical school and feeling stifled at home, he travels to rural Uganda on a whim to work at a charitable clinic. After a chance encounter with Amin, who has just seized power in a coup, the volatile president asks Nicholas to be his personal physician and advisor, and Nicholas accepts.
Flattered by Amin’s attentions and intoxicated by his own proximity to power, the young doctor willfully blinds himself to the bloody horrors of the regime he serves. He allows himself to become, as one character scathingly puts it, Amin’s “white monkey.” Forest Whitaker’s intense performance as Amin is key here to our understanding of Nicholas, and Whitaker deserves the considerable acclaim he has received. Much of that praise, however, has been simplistic. Whitaker’s Amin isn’t merely charismatic; indeed, the actor never conceals his character’s erratic, volatile impulses. His Amin is magnetic not because he is personable (he isn’t really) but because he has such a powerful presence, electrified by his frighteningly mercurial nature.
The heart of the movie is not Whitaker’s performance but, more precisely, the interplay between him and James McAvoy, who plays Nicholas. Nicholas’ essential flaw is not, as we first assume, gullibility or greed. It is arrogance, for Nicholas is aware, at least to some extent, of how dangerous Amin is, but he imagines that he has the power to guide the dictator nevertheless. To some extent, The Last King of Scotland is a parable of the oft-repeated pattern of Western governments propping up dictators who serve their interests, only to see the violent, authoritative leaders turn on both their Western puppet-masters and their own people. After all, Amin himself came to power with the blessing of the British.
But Last King is a personal story, too. Whitaker and McAvoy’s scenes together are exhilarating because they reverberate with what goes unsaid—threats and stratagems and secrets and judgment. Whitaker has the showier role, but both actors deliver incredible, nuanced performances, deeply compelling despite the fact that neither is playing a sympathetic character. Direct Kevin Macdonald has a great sense of timing, lingering on some moments and crashing forward on others; the film develops narrative momentum without ever becoming thoughtless.
From a narrative standpoint, the climax of the film might be too contrived. Nicholas is so ludicrously rash and self-destructive that Last King’s plot inevitably dissolves into that of a thriller as he struggles to extricate himself from a trap of his making. But even then, the movie works because it is not just about Nicholas: The story’s grisly denouement implicates more than a single inept Scot. When the movie concludes with footage of the real Idi Amin and a few lines about the hundreds of thousands of people whom he had tortured and executed, that wider condemnation of people both black and white becomes terribly, terribly clear.