Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Last King of Scotland


Idi Amin Dada (there is some confusion about his real name, and even his birthdate) styled himself His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. That he was a thug and a megalomaniac should have been obvious to everyone, but it wasn’t, maybe because he was replacing Milton Obote, another of the long and depressing line of thugs and thieves and madmen who have run African countries since the murderous and racist colonial powers departed and left the continent in shambles. Amin didn’t look so terribly bad, in context. That he was a psychotic didn’t become obvious for some time. As in many other African holocausts, no one knows the exact number of people killed during his regime, but a good estimate is 300,000. (That is fairly close to the number of deaths caused by Monkey Boy, Dickhead Cheney, Cuntaleeza Rice, and “Rummy” Bumfuck. Impeachment, anybody? War crimes trials? Amin escaped all retribution; maybe Monkey Boy and company can be held to account.)

The story follows the short career of a young and sort of idealistic and very naive doctor (he seems more bent on adventure than actual humanitarianism, though he does work hard at the Ugandan bush clinic where he lands, pretty much at random) as he stumbles into the role of Amin’s closest advisor, something he never asked for but stupidly thinks might be a way to help Uganda. By the time he discovers the horrors of what is going on around him, he’s pretty much fucked. Then the movie turns abruptly into a suspense story of whether he can make his escape with his head still on his shoulders.

I think a great opportunity was missed here. I know you have to make a story like this personal, it’s almost impossible to tell a story of such great events by covering it all like a documentary; leave that to the documentarians. That’s why movies like The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda work. They tell the story from a limited point of view. The moral question that should have been much more to the forefront is that of the limits of collaboration and how much evil rubs off on you if you abet a mass murderer, even unwittingly. At some point it becomes too late to shout “I didn’t know!” At some point, you should have known, if you were paying attention, if you weren’t spending your time screwing Idi’s third wife. The movie largely sidesteps this question by becoming a thriller. I don’t really much care if the doctor escapes, I want to see how he faces the music, and his own crimes of omission.

This is worth seeing if only for Forrest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance. It is a role that he was physically born to play, the resemblance is amazing. But resemblance aside, you have to be able to inhabit the man’s madness, and Whitaker does an excellent job. He scares the crap out of you, even when he’s smiling. Maybe especially when he’s smiling. You can always see the slavering beast just beneath the skin.