The political thriller The Last King of Scotland assures us it is "inspired by real people and real events." There may not have been a brash young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, who in 1971 combined his medical training with a bit of African adventure. But as anybody of a certain age recalls, there certainly was an Idi Amin, the murderous despot of the central African nation of Uganda.
Adapted from Giles Foden's novel and directed by Kevin McDonald, Last King grafts Garrigan's story, a slow coming-to-awareness tale, onto the events of Amin's regime. A chance encounter with Amin nets Garrigan, who's bored by the rural clinic he helps staff, a plum assignment: personal physician to the country's new leader. "If you want to be of service to Uganda," Amin cajoles, "what better way than to look after its president?"
We know this isn't going to end well. But Garrigan (James McAvoy) tumbles for Amin, portrayed here marvelously, with equal parts charm and terror, by Forest Whitaker. It's a heady time, with newly independent African nations giddy with promise, and there's an aura of privilege -- sexual and otherwise -- that hangs over Amin's inner circle.
But ultimately, the film, which is never less than engaging throughout, is done in by the artifice of the Garrigan narrative. That Garrigan and Amin must fall out, and despise each other for who they really are, is inevitable. Yet rather than have this occur organically, Last King employs an absurd, ripped-from-Jerry-Springer plot device. And using the 1976 raid on Entebbe as a literal escape hatch is laughable. (I'd sooner believe Garrigan to have swum across Lake Victoria, to nearby Kenya.)
It's also in these last-reel throes of melodrama that McDonald's film most resembles the hackneyed works of yore, wherein the white man ventures into the dark continent with noble intentions only to find himself trapped among lawless savages. McDonald proffers some rebuke -- Amin himself nastily reminds Garrigan that "we are not a game, we are real" -- but the conclusion is clearly constructed to fire us up over Garrigan's sense of betrayal and his immediate peril.
Whitaker, who's journeyed for years as a character actor in a slew of good and bad films, has earned the first Oscar buzz of the season, and his mesmerizing performance in Last King is worth the ticket price. Appropriately, he renders Amin larger than life (the film's title is one of many grandiose titles Amin bestowed upon himself). Amin is a dormant monster in fine leopard-skin robes, but Whitaker also captures the former ruler's charismatic playfulness, which allowed the world to dismiss him, ill-advisedly it turned out, as provincial buffoon. AAA
Starts Fri., Oct. 6.