Long live the ‘Last King’

Shocking brutality rules the day in ‘Scotland’

“The Last King of Scotland” is not a true story, nor is it primarily the story of Ugandan president Idi Amin, the man responsible for the deaths of 300,000 of his countrymen during an eight-year reign that ended in 1979. It is the story of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who falls into Amin’s good graces and stays there long enough to regret it. Based on Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, “The Last King of Scotland” is a tense thriller, but it is also a chilling study of two men whose appetites lead to their downfall.

Amin (Forest Whitaker), who playfully referred to himself by many grandiose nicknames — among them, “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and, yes, “King of Scotland” — is shown here as a charming killer, capable of winning over (for a time) the international press corps with his wide smile and bellowing laugh, but just as capable of slaughtering anyone perceived as a threat. He seduces people like Garrigan with vague pledges to build an independent Uganda filled with roads, schools and hospitals. Others applaudhim for who he is not: Milton Obote, his predecessor, who used the presidency to line his own pockets.

For all his assumed geniality, though, Amin is wildly unpredictable, living in fear of enemies both real and imagined. His violent tantrums make him seem mad, and indeed, there is evidence that Amin may have actually suffered from some mental illness. But the man, portrayed so masterfully by Whitaker, is more shrewd than crazy. He hides the monster within, constantly sizing up those around him and preying on their weaknesses. Once they’re in his vise-like grasp, he squeezes them until they bleed, and Garrigan is no exception.

The young doctor is an easy mark. Just out of medical school, Garrigan is restless and eager to travel — anywhere, it seems, so long as it’s far from home. Randomly, he chooses Uganda, where he has vague aspirations to help the poor villagers but not the requisite work ethic.

Garrigan is an adventure-seeker, and though the idea of being of globe-traveling altruist has some romantic appeal, he doesn’t really want to get his hands dirty. A friend, Sarah (Gillian Anderson), senses this; Amin exploits it. After a chance meeting with the president, Garrigan is invited to become his personal physician. Garrigan takes the job, and before long his hands are soaked with blood.

“The Last King of Scotland” is a political horror story, particularly relevant today, about the dangers of naiveté and unwitting complicity. Garrigan, a fictitious character based on several of Amin’s confidantes, foolishly buys into the empty rhetoric of a homicidal bully, never questioning his brutal reality. In the end, Garrigan is more a dupe than a malicious accessory; he embraces ignorance, unwilling to sacrifice his privileged lifestyle for the sake of doing what’s right.

Whitaker’s performance as Amin is almost certainly the most powerful of his career. He strikes the perfect balance of calculated cool and wild-eyed fervor, giving Amin a presence that is simultaneously riveting and terrifying. His charisma is exceeded only by his sociopathic rage, a reminder that even the most dangerous killers sometimes greet you with a smile.

Movie review

The Last King of Scotland ???½

Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson

Written by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, Joe Penhall and Giles Foden

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Rated R

Running time 2 hours, 1 minute

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

San Francisco Sheriff candidate Paul Miyamoto in a meeting with the Examiner editorial board on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
New shelter-in-place order gives tenants a temporary reprieve from eviction

Sheriff’s Department resumed regular enforcement this week for the first time since March

Under stay-at-home orders effective today in San Francisco, outdoor dining is not allowed, and there are new limits regarding the number of people that can be indoors at essential businesses. <ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Bay Area counties to shut down outdoor dining, non-essential businesses

Regional stay-at-home order to take effect Sunday, sooner than statewide order announced Thursday

Former Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant received his 2017-18 Championship ring at Oracle Arena in Oakland on Oct. 16, 2018. Durant, now playing with the Brooklyn Nets, will play against his former team at Chase Center in February. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Kevin Durant to face former teammates at Chase Center in February

Schedule released Friday calls for Warriors to play Christmas and New Year’s Day games

San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert’s (31) return from injury last week was key for the team’s offense. <ins>(Chris Victorio/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>
49ers fighting for final NFC wild-card spot in Monday’s game against the Bills

Bills at 49ers When: Monday, 5:15 p.m. Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale,… Continue reading

The Smashing Pumpkins’ 2020 recording is the 20-song “CYR.” (Courtesy photo)
Billy Corgan continues to confound expectations

Smashing Pumpkins release retro-sounding ‘CYR’

Most Read