The History Place - Movie Review

The Last King of Scotland

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Forest Witaker provides the performance of a lifetime as Idi Amin, the mad Ugandan dictator of the 1970s. Witaker first made his mark as a soldier held hostage by the IRA in The Crying Game (1992). Since then he's played parts, such as a policeman in the thriller Phone Booth, that were way below his abilities. In The Last King of Scotland he brings the African upstart, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia just three years ago, back to life.

James (The Chronicles of Narnia) McAvoy's young Scottish doctor is the perfect foil to Witaker's flawless dictator. Nick Garrigan is newly graduated from medical school at the start of the story. His father, a family physician, toasts his son over a celebratory family dinner,"Congratulations on your degree--not as good as my own--but a fine accomplishment all the same." Thus the younger Garrigan feels he's got to get away. Spinning a globe in his bedroom, he vows to go to whatever place his finger touches. On the first try, he pokes Canada and grimaces. On spin number two, his digit hits Uganda.

The next time we see Nick, he's on a bus, bound for a bush clinic. When a local village is visited by the newly ascendant Amin, Dr. Garrigan gets to distinguish himself, after Uganda's new president crashes his car and needs a bit of EMT. Soon thereafter, to Nick's surprise, Idi's Minister of Health arrives from Kampala and offers young Doctor Garrigan a gig as Amin's personal medico.

Kampala seems like Eden after months of working in the bush clinic. And as Amin accords ever-increasing responsibilities to his doctor-cum-advisor, the deadly brew of luxury and power seduces the doc. Echoing the title of African writer Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, Nick's scrupulously sanitized, hermetically sealed world soon commences to crumble.

The first fissure appears after Nick, out of loyalty to his principle patient, reports on a conversation he witnessed between the health minister and a mysterious white guy in the bar of the Kampala Holiday Inn. A few days later, the minister has vanished, allegedly to Tanzania with an embezzled bag of boodle. But the local British "spook" knows better, and he also informs Nick that the hapless minister was only meeting with a South African penicillin maker at the Holiday Inn. Garrigan's self-confidence is badly shaken.

Perhaps that's why at a drunken bash, where he could enjoy any one of a number of willing beauties, he chooses instead to tumble with one of his employer's several wives. Is there any doubt that Dr. Nick Garrigan's fate is sealed?

Enter the crisis at Entebbe. On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139, originating in Tel Aviv, was hijacked. On board were 260 passengers and crew. The Airbus wound up in Uganda, where Amin graciously allowed the release of all non-Israeli passengers. This uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture by the dictator, who slaughtered 300,000 Ugandans during his six-year reign of terror, is Nick Garrigan's best and last chance to get back to 'Bonnie' Scotland. By now the young doctor is dying to join his dear 'ol dad's family practice. Whether or not he makes it, marks the climax of this remarkable tragic-comedy.

In the time between Nick Garrigan's index finger landing randomly on Uganda and the outcome at Entebbe some two hours later, lies a twisted tale of torture and tom-foolery in roughly equal amounts. Amin the prankster and party animal proves to be a seductive soul, as portrayed by Witaker. That his bipolar personality is utterly believable, makes Amin far more frightening than if he had been portrayed as pure evil. So it is entirely credible that a young, impressionable Scottish physician could be taken in. Even we, the viewers, will be tempted to like Idi Amin at first glance, despite our present-day hindsight into all that he turned out to be.

The Last King of Scotland works on several levels--as a political thriller, historical memoir, and as the portrait of a lovable, cuddly madman with the capacity to kill without remorse or a backward glance. It's a terrific film that makes an important point at a time when we are faced with other fanatics from roughly the same quadrant of the globe.

Rated R - For violence, sexual content and language.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

The Last King of Scotland - Official Website
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