If you wanted to know how messed up Uganda was in the 70s, why would you go watch The Last King of Scotland? You should obviously read Sam Karugire’s seminal piece A Political History of Uganda. Or Wikipedia “Idi Amin.” Image-google it. You’ll find out it was pretty darn bad.
LKoS advertises itself as “based on real events.” These real events are not primarily the massacres under Amin and the general goingtoshitness of Uganda in the ’70s. It turns out to be based on the “fact” that Amin did, at some point, have some sort of Scottish doctor with him. If the movie meant to accurately depict thousands of deaths, it would’ve done a terrible job indeed since these events are dealt with via six or seven black and white pictures around minute 82. So let’s not criticize LKoS for not accurately representing History, since it just doesn’t. So what if director Kevin Macdonald has done several documentaries in the past? So what if he said he meant this one to be a sort of documentary? The movie is based on Giles Foden’s novel of the same name, which itself did not mean to be non-fiction; so there was little chance for the movie to be too factual. Hopefully, it did not truly aim to be a treatise of political history. In all likelihood, it was advertised this way to appeal to that wealthy and easily influenced demographic: the hippies.
The movie is really about a young Scot’s ambiguous game of hide and seek with dictator Idi Amin (and by the way, while you hid I boned your wife). Forest Whitaker does a magnificent job playing Amin, the Ugandan dictator. Even knowing the History, you cannot help but fall under the spell of cheerfulness and fatherly energy that Amin exudes from the beginning. Sudden zooms in on his face and other tricky camera work help establish Amin as a character larger than life. His complexity as a character is seamless, balanced between moments of genuine concern and bellicose explosions. He has a wondering eye that makes him look truly intense. The dictator is deep, confused, but captivating.
James McAvoy plays Whitey McCrackerHo (slash “Nicholas Garrigan”), pot smoker, idealist and doctor who takes a surprisingly long time to realize he’s up to his neck in it. McAvoy’s performance is up to the level of Whitaker’s, although his cluelessness is a bit forced, as is the ease with which he allows himself to be deceived by Amin. Blame the script or the general idiocy of Scots. The supporting cast does an equally great job.
The movie is otherwise juicy for its Ugandan landscapes and colorful snapshots of daily life in the country. The plot and screenplay are crafted with particular skill for the first half, although some of the later twists feel slightly clichéd. Gore is kept to a minimum, but a pervading tension makes its presence felt early on. The ending will hopefully be thought-provoking. It reminded me of a few of those little maxims we should never forget, like “don’t mess with Israel” or “don’t cheat on cannibal dictators.” You might also want to grab a cappuccino with your friends afterwards, to discuss the ethics of development aid and what a good deal it is to be white.
I highly recommend the movie. The Last King of Scotland is playing at the Garden Theatre until they realize how much more money they’d make on the Borat movie.