the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Last King of Scotland













There is a line, three fourths of the way through the mesmerizing The Last King of Scotland, in which Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) asks his personal physician Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) about the likelihood of an obviously impossible physical abnormality.

“Almost all aberrations of nature are possible,” Garrigan responds.

We all know who Idi Amin is. It is no surprise when one of the most loathed figures of the 20th century begins butchering everyone in sight in a maniacal and insane quest to hold onto his power. When it was all said and done, Amin butchered hundreds of thousands of his own people.

What The Last King of Scotland does so well is reveal how jovial and buoyant Amin was, a charismatic and magnetic personality that caused all around him to become instantly hypnotized. Amin’s passion is the one overarching constant of his life. That he is equally loving and charming as he is murderous and cruel is what this film is so masterful at revealing.

The Last King of Scotland begins not in Uganda, but in Scotland. There, Nicholas Garrigan graduates from medical school and prepares to settle down to a dull, bland medical practice with his doctor father. We’re only given one scene with Garrigan senior but it is enough to justify the younger’s frustrated scream out loud later when contemplating his fate. Instead, the fool-hearty Garrigan comes up with a fool-proof plan: spin a globe and wherever his finger first falls, that’s where he’ll go.

Canada.

Not quite wild enough for Garrigan’s tastes. Spin again.

Uganda. So be it.

We see only a few seconds of Garrigan’s native Scotland in the opening moments of the film, but it is enough to implant a lasting contrast between the lush, green, fog-enshrouded hills of his homeland and the dry, red, sweltering palate of his new, African home. Adventurous and full of life, Garrigan takes to his new job at a mission clinic with delighted zeal. He seems to have found the perfect match for his temperament, an outlet large enough for even for his restless, pleasure-seeking soul. It also helps that he’s fallen in lust with the mission doctor’s wife, played by Gillian Anderson in a small but crucial enough role to make one yearn for larger, meatier stuff in her future.

At a political rally, Garrigan is introduced to General Idi Amin, a military general who has just disposed of the corrupt and inept administration in which he formerly served. Fascinated by the young European, Amin shows him the presidential palace, wines and dines him, lavishes him with gifts and begs him to become his personal physician. When Garrigan half protests that he came to Africa to treat its hurting people, Amin tells him that if Uganda’s population is the body, he is the head — how better to serve Uganda than to ensure the head is healthy.

Supposedly the speech convinces Garrigan. But we know better. We’ve seen the posh apartment, the Mercedes convertible, the tailored suits. Garrigan’s is made to feel important, vital, irreplaceable. His every whim is coddled to, his every fantasy fulfilled, his sense of importance massaged and built up. He is drunk on power and money and praise. Moreover, Amin becomes a sort of benevolent father figure, filling a void in Garrigan’s life and creating a relationship more familial than friendship.

At first everything is perfect. Garrigan spends most of his time as a playboy, only rarely consulting at the city’s main hospital. His visits to Amin are frequent but more often for cocktails than complaints. However, the more time he spends around Amin, the more he comes to realize that all is not as it seems. After an assassination attempt on Amin’s life that Garrigan is witness to, the true character of his benefactor’s loathsome and murderous nature is revealed.

“He’s always been like this,” Amin’s neglected third wife and Garrigan’s secret lover, tells him. “He simply chose not to show you until now.”

It’s not as if he didn’t have any warnings. The capitol city is swarming with Uganda’s British puppet masters, the European men who pulled the strings in order to hand Amin the throne only to find that in the quest for Britain’s self interests, they have elevated a mad man. When Garrigan is approached and asked to spy on Amin, initially his idealistic skepticism and fierce Scottish resentment over English manipulation wins out. But the more Garrigan sees, the more he realizes the horrors are true. Worse, in his blind trust of Amin, he is at least tangentially responsible for some of the dictator’s more unsavory actions.

It is not that Garrigan is a bad man. He’s not. He’s actually a very caring, compassionate and loving man. But he is young, and interested only in himself, in what fun can be had. Endowed with a disproportionate hedonism, he blinds himself to the suffering his narcissism allows and in some cases, produces.

Forest Whitaker does an extraordinary job in a tour-de-force performance that chews up the scenery without once going over the top. He portrays Amin as funny, vulnerable, tender and enigmatic — all without ever letting us forget he was a maniacal monster. Like Helen Mirren’s exquisite performance as the regal Elizabeth in The Queen, Whitaker embodies the role, channeling and not merely acting. When the film ends with clips of the actual man, you realize just how good he truly was.

Only slightly less praiseworthy is relative new-comer James McAvoy who plays Nicholas Garrigan with just the right balance of narcissism, idealism and compassion. Garrigan represents all of us — everyone deceived, tricked or seduced by great power and praise. But there comes a time when you can no longer run from what you’ve done, when you must confront the culpability of your own actions and face the consequences of your sins committed either by commission or omission.

The Last King of Scotland is a brutal film — a commentary on manipulation, a cautionary tale on the terrible dangers of self-absorption and even manages to become a commentary on political meddling. Ultimately though, one is left with one disturbing and nagging question: to what degree are we all complicate in evil and guilty by association?

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