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

Just Posted

California Highway Patrol officers watch as Caltrans workers remove barricades from homeless camp sites as residents are forced to relocate from a parking lot underneath Interstate 80 on Monday, May 17, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco’s broken promise to resolve homeless encampments

‘There is an idea that The City is leading with services, and they are not’

The Department of Building Inspection, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., has been mired in scandal since since its creation by voter referendum under Proposition G in 1994. (Courtesy SF.gov)
The Department of Building Inspection, at 49 South Van Ness Ave., has been mired in scandal since its creation by voter referendum under Proposition G in 1994. (Courtesy SF.gov)
Whistleblowing hasn’t worked at San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection

DBI inspectors say their boss kept them off connected builders’ projects

FILE — Mort Sahl on Nov. 10, 1967. Sahl, who confronted Eisenhower-era cultural complacency with acid stage monologues, delivering biting social commentary in the guise of a stand-up comedian and thus changing the nature of both stand-up comedy and social commentary, died on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, at his home in Mill Valley, Calif., near San Francisco. He was 94. (Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)
Legendary local comedian dies at 94

By Bruce Weber NYTimes News Service Mort Sahl, who confronted Eisenhower-era cultural… Continue reading

Sharon Van Etten (left) reached out to Angel Olsen about working on a song and they ended up releasing “Like I Used To,” which may be performed at Outside Lands. (Photo by Dana Trippe)
Performers’ emotions are high as Outside Lands returns to San Francisco

Festival features Sharon Van Etten and Boy Scouts alongside The Strokes, Lizzo and Tame Impala

Most Read