“My son Campbell would love that T-shirt,” says the Ugandan military dictator to the Scottish doctor. So begins as unlikely relationship as any that could be dreamed up between Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young and whey-faced fellow who came to Africa to “make a difference”, and none other than Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). It’s told with the brightly-lit, full-frontal gusto of an A-list Hollywood production, but it’s got the wit and insight of a smaller, nominally more character-driven film. That’s as it should be, because a story like this is best told as something taking place between people and not an epic of armies colliding.
Nicholas ended up in Uganda more or less at random, to get out from under the thumb of his father. Before bumping into Amin, he was sweating it out at a village clinic shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow physician Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) , who has few of Nicholas’s idealistic delusions. She’s singularly unimpressed when Amin comes to town to stump for the success of his coup; she’s seen dictators come and go. Nicholas has not, and that at least partly explains his attraction to the man. There is also the suggestion that Nicholas is all too willing to embrace the kind of justifications that Amin uses in his line of work — as when he takes Amin’s pistol and shoots a dying cow in the head.
Amin’s impressed by Nicholas in ways that don’t seem to make sense at first — why him, of all people? — but the more we see of Amin in action the more everything he does exhibits a kind of mad logic. Nicholas is Scottish; Amin sympathizes with the Scots over the British (having fought side-by-side with them, or so he claims); what better way to reward this brave young man by offering him the post of official physical to the president? “You want to be of service to Uganda, don’t you?” he tells Nicholas. The young man vacillates for all of one day before he’s at a dinner party hosted by Amin, clad in a suit Amin paid to have tailored for him, standing under a balcony listening to Amin rhapsodize about how the Greeks stole their philosophy from Africa wholesale.
There’s no question Amin has a paranoid streak, but it seems harmless and eccentric enough at first. One night when Amin writhes in agony on his bed and fears he has been poisoned, Nicholas takes a closer look and realizes it’s only gas. Then by degrees the man’s real madness begins to emerge, as when he rants and seethes and begs Nicholas for advice from “his most trusted advisor” — advice the doctor is almost certainly not equipped to give. Other, even more troubling things come to light, as when Amin refuses a simple treatment for one of his sons’ epilepsy on the grounds that the boy has everything else he needs. Whenever Nicholas protests (however feebly), Amin oscillates between smoldering anger and synthetic honesty: “I like this type of frank conversation,” he says with a grin, only seconds after berating the other man for asking the wrong kind of question. The two are in a relationship of the damned, and while Nicholas is the only one who can sense the full implications of that, he’s not wise enough to do anything but dig himself in all the deeper, as when he sleeps with one of Amin’s wives (who is as complicit as he is) and both of them suffer punishments that seem almost too ghastly to be real.
The Last King of Scotland’s main source of inspiration may be Giles Foden’s novel, but Idi Amin’s bombastic character and murderous regime are quite within the realm of fact. If anything, the facts outrace any fiction: Barbet Schroeder’s Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait brought a camera crew right to the man, allowed Amin to simply be himself, and made it clear to anyone who cared to watch how unhinged and monomaniacal he really was. Forest Whitaker’s performance is modeled explicitly after the man in those newsreels, and it’s so immersive and complete a performance that at the end, when we finally do see the real Idi Amin, there’s a moment of hesitation: We’re not sure if we’re still looking at Forest, or the genuine article. He’s reason enough to see the film, but he’s also surrounded by a story that understands how people could find him fascinating and endearing even when we now ostensibly know better. They saw what they wanted to saw, and ignored the worst of him — and themselves — at their own peril.