Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Goodbye, Glasgow

Film: The Last King of Scotland
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When I first saw The Last King of Scotland, I was very much interested in it. While most of my interest stemmed from seeing Forest Whitaker in a role he won an Oscar for, a little bit of it was for James McAvoy, who had a brief run as the flavor of the month between his role in the first Narnia film, this, Atonement, and Wanted. The film did not disappoint; this is an impressive film, but a very disturbing one. I have distinct memories of parts of this film, and had put this on my short list of films I’m happy to have seen and never want to see again. Thus it’s taken me this long to return to it. I wasn’t anticipating this rewatch, but I couldn’t put it off any longer. (Okay, I could, but I’ve waited long enough.)

The Last King of Scotland is a semi-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the rule of General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) in Uganda, told through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), his personal doctor. The film starts with Garrigan’s graduation from medical school and his immediate dissatisfaction with working in his father’s practice. He spins a globe, vowing to go practice wherever his finger lands when he spins it. He comes up with the prosaic Canada first, so he tries again and lands on Uganda.

In Uganda, Amin has just taken power, and Garrigan goes to watch one of his speeches with fellow clinic doctor Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson, looking nothing like her X Files persona). On the way back, the discover that Amin has had a minor accident, and Nicholas goes to treat his injured hand. A wounded cow, evidently struck by Amin’s car, moans on the ground, and disturbed by the noise, Nicholas grabs a pistol and shoots it. As it turns out, the gun he grabbed was Amin’s and things are very tense until Nicholas reveals that he is a Scot. Amin, it turns out, is a huge fan of the Scots, and within days, Nicholas has become his personal physician.

One feature of Nicholas’s new position is that he frequently runs into Stone (Simon McBurney), a man who works with for the British government. At first, Nicholas’s life is all about parties and helping Amin with any medical problems he might have. He also manages to save Amin’s son by Kay (Kerry Washington), his third wife, when the boy has an epileptic fit. But as time goes on, he starts to realize that things are not what he pretends to himself that they are. When he sees another of Amin’s advisors (Stephen Rwangyezi) speaking with men he doesn’t recognize, he tells Amin, and suddenly the man has disappeared.

More seriously, and much more dangerously, he begins a relationship with Kay. This relationship becomes very complicated when Kay becomes pregnant. The child can only be Garrigan’s because she has fallen into disfavor with Amin since her son is epileptic. This is a death sentence, something that Garrigan is starting to see with the mass killings and mass disappearances happening across the country. However, since Amin has had his passport taken, he is stuck in Uganda. Stone refuses to help unless he uses his position to assassinate Amin.

I won’t go into the last half hour or so of this film. Suffice to say that it is grueling.

This is a difficult film to judge in a lot of respects. On the one hand, this is a staggering film, one that is incredibly compelling. The problem is that it’s compelling like a train wreck. It’s terrible and brutal, and yet demands to be seen. This is an ugly film, but it is ugly for a reason. It’s fantastically made, a film that is truly spectacular. It’s one of the situations for me that reminds me that art is not always beautiful. There is art, like The Last King of Scotland that exists to expose something terrible, to show us a picture of the world that we don’t want to look at but must see anyway. In many ways, this is the highest function of art—to show us reality through the lens of fiction, to wake us up that the happy ending frequently doesn’t happen for the people we want, or for us.

For me, the first and best reason to watch this film is for Forest Whitaker, who turns in one of the truly great performances in the history of film. He went deep into himself and deep into Amin to get this character. It’s reported that he stayed in character even when not filming. I think he had to. This was a dark place, and I’m not sure that anyone could have gone back into it once they came out. I put this performance on a par with anything I’ve seen. It’s that believable and that terrifying.

So make no mistake: this is not something to put on for a night you’re looking for a little light entertainment. This is a grueling, brutal film that will leave you emotionally shaken and physically shaking. It is an amazing piece of work and not one to be taken lightly, but it’s worth seeing.

Why to watch The Last King of Scotland: Forest Whitaker earned every ounce of that statue.
Why not to watch: This is not a happy film.


  1. I think I've managed to block most of this film from memory, because I can only really remember the first half, and literally nothing towards the end - and I only saw it less than a year ago. Whitaker was absolutely staggering as Amin though, and I agree he earned that Oscar more than most.

    1. That's funny, because I much more remembered the second half of this film, because it's the second half that becomes so ugly.

  2. I agree on Whitaker. By the way, I'd noticed his eye in movies before, but the same feature in this film just gave an ever weirder/crazier air to the character he was playing.

    Unfortunately, my appreciation for this film ended when I tried to find out more about the doctor character afterwards - to see what had happened to him in the subsequent years. At the beginning they say this movie is based on true events. Okay, that can mean anything from a very truthful narrative to some events being changed or moved around in order to help the presentation. What I found out, though, is other than Amin being a bad man (which I already knew) and that he had a fascination with Scotland (which I did not know) everything else was fiction. The best/worst part? The doctor character didn't even exist. He, and all the things that happened to him and that he did, were complete fiction. They might as well have put a statement at the beginning of Titanic saying it was based on true events. It would have been equally as accurate as the statement in this film. It bugs me when movies trick us like that. (I felt the same way after finding out The Guns of Navarone was a complete fiction despite it saying it was true at the beginning of the movie.)

    1. Yeah, the eye thing. It does give him a more menacing look in this, and it's actually a large part of his performance. He looks like he's on the edge of sanity most of the time, and the way he can turn it on and turn it off is pretty spectacular.

      As for the reality, I see that, too. I never really assume that a film based on real events is ever that real until I check for myself. It's disappointing, but I think it stems from a pretty natural tendency from the filmmakers. Without Garrigan, we don't really have a character to latch onto. We need someone at that morally ambiguous center, and most of the other people in the film are firmly on one side of that divide or the other. It would be really easy to bring race into this, too, and I think that may well have been part of the decision to do the film this way. While it's been disproven over and over again, there's still a chunk of producers who think a film won't sell without a white male protagonist. And really, the only other option is Stone, and that turns this into a spy movie.

  3. I watched The Last King of Scotland last night and I didn't think it was very good. It's actually kind of stupid in a lot of ways. It made me think of a low-budget exploitation film of the 1950s or 1960s, but with a huge budget, big stars and none of the charm.

    This movie takes itself way too seriously to be as dumb as it is.

    I think perhaps I'm coming at it from a vastly different perspective than other movie fans. For one thing, I have a masters degree in history, and I think I have very high standards for historical fiction. Yes, I know it's fiction, but there should be some limits on what a filmmaker can do in a historical film if he expects to be treated seriously by critics and fans. A few changes are expected and acceptable. But I expect the writer to come up with something that isn't totally stupid. And The Last King of Scotland is pretty stupid.

    I used to know a guy who grew up in Uganda during Idi Amin's regime, so maybe that's affecting my critique. His parents were Pakistani, and my friend was either born in Uganda or his parents moved to Uganda when he was very young. The family ran a movie theater. My friend told me his childhood was a lot like Cinema Paradiso, and he would watch every movie that showed there, and the ones he liked, he would watch ten times or more. (The ones he didn't like, he would watch only two or three times.)

    It was like Cinema Paradiso, except they were Pakistani not Italian. And they were in Uganda, not Italy. The ending was a lot different too. Amin expelled the Asians, and my friend said the whole family had to leave with just a few suitcases and he remembers his mother trying to keep the children from looking out the train windows to see the piles of bodies along the railroad track.

    That's a compelling story about Idi Amin's Uganda. And it's true. There are millions of stories like that, from the expelled Asians to the sufferings of the native Ugandans.

    And we get a big budget movie about Idi Amin that can't think of any other way to tell the story except to take a book about a totally fictional Scots doctor who is very handsome and all the girls in Uganda want to sleep with him. And also, he's really dumb. An IQ that can't be much above 80. I bet the other doctor (the one married to Gillian Anderson) was glad when he left to be Amin's personal physician because he was just too dumb to be of much help.

  4. I was rolling my eyes A LOT! I think I could forgive the "plight of the poor white man" nature of the narrative if he wasn't such a ding-dong. The worst scene was where he told Idi Amin that the other advisor was acting suspicious, and then he was surprised when the guy disappeared! Oh noes! Who would have thought?!

    The movie that popped into my head was Operation: Eichmann with Werner Klemperer as Adolph Eichmann. Because that's a hastily made exploitation film made in the months after Eichmann was captured in Argentina. It's really goofy (you get to see John Banner (Sgt. Schultz from "Hogan's Heroes") as the commandant of Auschwitz!) but Klemperer is very chilling as Eichmann! There's a very sly performance at the heart of Operation: Eichmann that makes it a very compelling film despite the non-existent budget.

    The Last King of Scotland isn't a low-budget exploitation film, but it does have a chilling performance in the heart of the proceedings. I can see why people make such a big deal about Forrest Whittaker's performance. He's so good that I shouldn't be surprised that many people who don't know that much about Idi Amin don't seem to notice that the film built around Whittaker is really really silly.

    It wasn't boring though. That's kind of where I draw the line when condemning a film. It was pretty late by the time I was done so I did have a bit of trouble with the last 20 minutes or so. So I don't feel like I wasted my time or anything.

    But even thought I didn't hate The Last King of Scotland, that doesn't mean it wasn't seriously dumb.

  5. We'll disagree on it. I think there's a lot here that is worth seeing,