The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Adapted from the novel by Giles Foden
by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan and Joe Penhall
The new film from director Kevin Macdonald, with a screenplay adapted from Giles Foden's novel of the same name by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan and Joe Penhall, is a sort of political thriller combined with a fictionalized biography. It succeeds well in the former, subordinate ambition, and not quite so well in the latter and loftier one, yet it manages to provide an overpowering experience that offers insight into the socio-political problems the world still faces in many "developing" post-colonial countries.
The subject and main attraction of the film - in spite of the presence of other plot-lines - is a riveting performance by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. The film's primary shortcoming is the fact that it fails, in spite of its tremendous emotional power, to give us much insight into this enigmatic figure, who was portrayed in the world press as alternately charming and terrifying, the most articulately idealistic and the most brutally cruel in a long (and still un-ending) line of tin-pot despots the African Continent has produced.
The film is unable to answer the question of who Amin really was, but it does present a powerful image of this larger-than-life character who could charm the press and public with his amusing and self-deprecating banter one minute, and act with vicious brutality in response to his seemingly paranoid fears the next. Whitaker manages to breathe life into the image of the genial, fun-loving "man of the people" that Amin sometimes presented, as well as the barbaric maniac consumed with an almost "Othello"-like obsession with betrayal and treachery.
Amin's place in history is unusual. After gaining its independence from nearly a century of colonial rule by Great Britain in 1962, Uganda, like many post-colonial states, spun out of control. One of the leaders of the Independence movement, Milton Obote, took control of the government as Prime Minister, with the assistance of an ally in the Army - Idi Amin.
Amin, born into a poor family of the minority Kakwa tribe from the north of the country (whose boundaries had been arbitrarily drawn by "the Great Powers" during the colonialist scramble of the late 1800s), had, partly by virtue of his powerful build and athleticism (he stood over 6'3", weighed above 225 lbs, and was Uganda's light heavyweight boxing champion from 1951-1960) been recruited into the British Army as part of the King's African Rifles.
An amiable and charismatic personality at this period in his life, popular with his fellow soldiers, he ingratiated himself with his superiors and rose through the ranks, eventually attaining the rank of "Effendi" - the highest which an African soldier could aspire to in the Colonial Forces. In 1961, Amin was promoted to Lieutenant - one of only two black Ugandans to be commissioned in the British Army.
Just at the transition to Independence, Amin's command, which had been dispatched to control an outbreak of cattle-stealing, was accused of brutality and murder in their treatment of suspects. Their mis-behavior was overlooked in light of Amin's previously excellent record and the transition wiped away any consideration of the events.
His support for Obote translated into a series of promotions under Obote's rule, from Major to Deputy Commander of the Army and Air Force by 1964. During this period, he was sent to Israel to take paratrooper training, and became a favorite of the Israelis and a go between for their support of the Obote regime.
In the course of a decade in which Obote's rule became more fragmented and chaotic (as well as more openly pro-Soviet), outside powers, including Israel and Britain, felt the need for a change of leadership in Uganda. In January of 1971, while Obote was out of the country attending a conference, Amin engineered a coup during which his forces massacred officers loyal to Obote and took control first of the Army and then of the Government.
In the early days of his regime, Amin received support and encouragement from the Western Powers. It is at this point that the film takes up the story. Using the device of inserting a fictional character - the Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan - in real situations, the writers conflate a series of observations (and presumably their own interpretations as well) drawn from a composite of many first-hand reports on events in Amin's Uganda.
The result is not a pretty picture. Amin's descent (or flowering, to look at it another way) from his early claims to be a "man of the people" and to put the Ugandan people first, to the paranoid, megalomaniac obsessions of the end of his regime might be an object lesson in the dictum that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." But it can also be seen as a demonstration of the fact that stress - the stress of being a simple, uneducated soldier, suddenly elevated to international attention - can evoke significant psychological breakdown - as it may have in this case.
While Amin's tragic deterioration - as frighteningly and pitifully portrayed by Whitaker - is the central dramatic theme of the film, there is also food for thought in the characters and events that surround him. The way in which Garrigan - winningly embodied by James McAvoy - rationalizes his actions as he makes the transition from his initial role as an overworked clinician working with the poor in the countryside, to a life of ease and luxury in the capital, driving around in a Mercedes (a personal gift from Amin) and accepting Amin's flattery that he is the increasingly demented and dangerous President's "most-trusted advisor," illustrates the truth of the power of self-delusion to serve self-interest.
In many ways, this transition can also be seen as analogous (or metaphoric) to the West's self-deluded and self-interested relations with African (and other formerly colonial ) nations in the post-Colonial world. One of Amin's greatest fears was that his enemies were trying to assassinate him. But this was not mere paranoia.
There is ample evidence - including a number of assassination attempts - to demonstrate that his fears were well-grounded (although the ruthless killing he ordered in response to or in fear of such events was certainly insane in its scope and brutality). There is also evidence that Western powers, and specifically Britain, considered assassination as a possible response to Amin's increasingly harsh rhetoric against their country.
The "Great Game" of espionage and intrigue- as personified by another fictional "composite" character, the British attachˇ Nigel Stone (Simon McBurney), was certainly being played all around Amin. African leaders including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo were assassinated with the apparent blessing of the Great Powers, as South Africa continued to pursue Apartheid by main and often lethal force, with the material and moral support of its Western allies.
In a sense, the chaos and madness into which Uganda fell under Amin's rule is representative of the chaos and madness that colonial rule and its aftermath sowed on the African continent, the fruits of which are still being reaped in countries like Rwanda - where the recent mass killings were based on the artificial and imaginary "ethnic" distinction between "Hutus" and "Tutsis" that was arbitrarily imposed by colonial rulers.
In many ways, Amin has become the Black Bogey-man - a symbol of black Africa's lack of the "civilization" needed to effectively govern itself, and a justification for endless intervention and interference in African affairs - when it suits the purpose (as it horrifyingly and inexcusably didn't in Rwanda). It is to the film-makers' credit that the Amin they show us here, though terrifying in his own way, is a much more three-dimensional human being than that.
The film succeeds as a political thriller because the script manages to rachet up the risk, the danger and the terror practically to the final frame. Although the events are based in history, many of the characters are not, so in spite of knowing the outcome of the events, we are in considerable suspense over the fate of the characters.
As a suspense-genre-film, like Three Days of the Condor, say, or In the Line of Fire, it is close attention to pacing and editing that keeps the story moving and the tension building. The script supports this line with well-written dialogue and a strong sense of character that encourages the audience to invest in the people depicted, in spite of their flaws, and care about their fates.
Creating such an atmosphere is what the most collaborative examples of the filmmaking process are all about. In this case, a first-rate cast, delicate and carefully-tuned direction, a well-crafted script, and high-quality production combine to produce a movie that, if not entirely satisfying, is still a fine piece of work.
The cast is obviously inspired and electrified by Whitaker's performance. In the scenes in which he appears, he is magnetic on the screen - not as a "movie star", but appropriately to his character, in the same way that Amin was said to exert a powerful charisma. Whitaker has a history of playing "gentle giants," men whose rude and formidable exteriors hide a sensitive heart. Here, he plays as far from that type as possible - a ruthless, brutal egomaniac - yet Whitaker manages to show us Amin's anguish as well, in a way that is nearly as disarming - and chilling - as his evocation of Amin's ready good-humor.
James McAvoy does a fine job as the naive and idealistic Garrigan. He gives the film its perspective on events, as well as being the central actor in the suspense theme, and he does well in both roles. His character is broadly sketched, but with fine details, so that we know what we need to know about him, without knowing "all" about him. His slight figure and the youthful, negligent tone he adopts offer a perfect foil for Whitaker's intimidating physical presence and wild energy.
The supporting cast do a fine job. Simon McBurney, as the Machiavellian "diplomat" Stone, is cynicism and manipulation personified. His would have been an easy role to overdo, but McBurney manages to keep the character neatly in check. Kerry Washington plays Kay, the disappointed and virtually-abandoned wife of Amin (one of several), as an appealing presence who makes Garrigan's reckless risk in allowing his attraction to her to develop into something more, believable and gives us enough to care about that we are repelled by both Amin's brutal treatment of her and Garrigan's complicity in drawing her into that risk.
David Oyelowo as Dr. Junju, the Ugandan doctor who runs the main hospital, depicts a man of real integrity and dedication, who has faced and understood perhaps better than anyone else in the story the real ramifications of what is unfolding. Oyelowo does this with such off-hand dignity and confidence that there's never a hint of "performance" about it. Gillian Anderson has a small, almost throw-away part in a sub-plot apparently intended to establish a point about the youthful amorality of Garrigan's character. She embodies her character with such intensity that one expects - and almost hopes - she'll reappear in a more substantial way than she eventually does.
Africa is apparently a place where one can still afford to pay extras, and plenty of them. The production benefits greatly from the clear "realism" of the locations and the performances of many "background" actors who add a whole level of texture to it. The camera work emphasizes the "observer" role that both Garrigan and the audience inhabit, but becomes an active participant in the action when called on, for emphasis during the "action" sequences and particularly in the final scenes. The tension-building cross-cuts between various hand-held points of view of the last five minutes are worthy of Hitchcock.
The music - mostly performed by African artists and much of it music from the traditional culture (one notable exception is a unique and wonderfully dislocating rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee") - also underlines the exotic setting of the film, and reinforces the emotional tones - from abandoned joy to heartfelt laments - in which the film is colored.
MacDonald has put together a fine film. He and his talented collaborators have given audiences an exciting and harrowing story of suspense that also presents interesting - if limited - insights into the ways in which the "personal" and the "political" intersect. At the same time it offers a useful glimpse into the long term consequences of a Colonial past (and the risks of a possible neo-imperialist future) with which we still have to deal today.
That's my take on it. What's yours?