Idi Amin was one of the 20th century's more colorful butchers, and Forest Whitaker tries to capture the various hues in The Last King of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald's film about a Scottish lad who, fresh out of med school, moves to Uganda and winds up as the personal physician to the "President for Life." Few actors can seem so warm and friendly one moment, cold and frightening the next. And Whitaker pulls off some lightning shifts in mood while showing us a man who was both fascinating and horrifying. But the movie isn't really about Idi Amin. It's about that Scottish lad, a callow youth who appears to be standing in for every white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who ever ventured into the Heart of Darkness. Alas, this one's less venturesome than most.
His name's Nicholas Garrigan, and he's played by James McAvoy, who's kind of like a Scottish Topher Grace. Nicholas came to Uganda because the alternative was entering a practice with his father, a priggish bore. And when Amin, who's always admired the Scottish (to the point of wearing a kilt), takes a shine to him, Nicholas is seduced by the fearless leader's buffoonish charm. One small problem: The fearless leader isn't fearless. On the contrary, he's paranoid as hell. And he deals with his paranoia by eliminating those who induced it. This will eventually amount to over 300,000 Ugandans, the bodies dumped like trash. But Nicholas is slow to catch on. And even when he does catch on, he's slow to act, in part because Amin has made his life so comfortable. It's hard to mount a protest from a BMW convertible.
And it's hard to care too much about what happens to Nicholas, especially given that the people around him are being fed to crocodiles. The Last King of Scotland spares us most of the gory details, at least until near the end, when it wallows in them. But Macdonald, who captured the mind-numbing terror of mountain-climbing in Touching the Void, has trouble getting a menacing enough tone going this time around. And after Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond, that's the least we expect. Luckily, there's always something to watch when Amin's around. With his epaulets and medals, he was the ultimate tinpot dictator, a toy soldier who never grew up. But Whitaker also shows us the man behind the monster, the beauty behind the beast. And who knows, maybe there really was a man back there somewhere.