The Last King of Scotland is the story of Idi Admin (Forest Whitaker), the leader who came to power in Uganda in a coup in the 1970s. But the story is told through the eyes of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who is bored with his life in Scotland and decides to go and see the world, but lacking the imagination to select a place to visit, closes his eyes, spins a globe and makes a promise to himself that he will go to whichever country his finger lands on. Obviously that country is Uganda.
As Nicholas travels there, first by plane and then by bus, his bus is past by dozens of military vehicles on their way to support the coup which is occurring in the capital and bringing Amin to power.
He begins work a rural medical center where he meets an attractive European woman named Sarah (Gillian Anderson), the wife of the doctor who runs the medical center. The two begin an affair which they fear Sarah’s husband will discover and act cautiously as a result. One day Nicholas decides to go see Amin speak and Nicholas is immediately taken aback by the charm of the leader the way in which his rhetoric seems to reflect the wants and needs of the poor crowds before him.
Sarah is hardened and has seen leaders come and go, most often by coup, multiple times in her times in the world and has no high hopes for Amin, but Nicholas is idealistic and believes that the new leader should be given a chance before he is judged.
While discussing this, the pair are interrupted by Ugandan soldiers who have come to bring the doctors to a nearby accident where Idi Amin has been injured and needs treatment. Amin’s motorcade has collided with a cow, his hand is broken and the cow is moaning as it lies dying its painful death by the side of the rode. The cow’s cries distracting his attention from Amin’s wound, Nicholas, rather impulsively, grabs the nearest pistol, calmly walks over the cow and shoots it, much to the shock of the leader of Uganda and his soldier-bodyguards whose nerves are only settled when Nicholas lays down the gun and makes it clear he means the leader no harm, just that the cow needed to be put out of its misery.
The wound is treated and Amin is taken with Nicholas’ demeanor, asking him if he is English. Amin hates the English and is incredibly relieved when Nicholas clarifies that he is Scottish, not English. Amin, being a bit of an eccentric, eyes the t-shirt which Nicholas is wearing and insists one of his sons would love it and trades his full dress military coat for the t-shirt right there at the scene of the accident.
Thus is the beginning of Nicholas’ trip into the world of power, greed, sex, violence, war, paranoia, charisma, and confusion as he is summoned a few days later and offered the position of personal physician to Amin. After some protest, he agrees and with this new position comes power, wealth, and the many, many strange habits Idi Amin has.
In one instance Nicholas is summoned to an emergency in Amin’s room, where he is complaining of intense pain in his lower torso. Nicholas provides a cursory examination, determines the problem and grabbing a nearby baseball bat, uses the bat to bear-hug Amin and force out the gas which is causing him such pains. He then advises him never to mix one medication with another to avoid future such problems and after the calm, the two sit and talk.
It is easy to see the way Amin has a charm with people and without his temper and his paranoia he may very well have lead Uganda into some significant success. He speaks of growing up in extreme poverty and working his way up from grunt to soldier to officer to higher officer and now, finally to becoming the supreme leader of Uganda. His stories are touching and well told and he has an easy demeanor with people that make him instantly likable and a person with whom one may speak with fantastic ease.
Alas, one could go on and on about Amin, but that in itself is testament to the writing from the screenwriters and to the magnificent performance by Forest Whitaker as Idi Admin. Whitaker takes on the characters mannerisms, emotions, modes of speaking, accent, and other varieties of specific features to such an extent that at times it is difficult to determine whether this is a feature-length movie serving as a form of entertainment, or an attempt at a docudrama of the life of Idi Amin.
Nicholas’ character eventually realizes that he has himself been brought into something of a trap. Everything he has, including his passport, his housing, his food, even his transportation are all in the control of Amin and he is not free to return to Scotland. He is instead, a very wealthy, very powerful prisoner-physician to what would become one of the world’s most infamous African dictators.
Constantly getting himself into trouble, Nicholas eventually comes into Amin’s bad graces and finds himself in imminent danger of being executed and the movie’s most exciting climax comes when we discover whether or not Nicholas is one of the very few who have managed to escape the wrath of Amin, or if he is to find himself among the countless dead for which Amin is already responsible.
The direction is fantastic in the sense that one never really notices it. Director Kevin Macdonald manages to recreate the world of Uganda in the 1970s and direct his actors and all of the various other elements with such skill that one manages to forget that this is just a movie and becomes enveloped in Uganda in the 1970s and the world of Idi Admin. The present president of Uganda was thrilled by the notion that this film would accurately portray Ugandan history and the cast and crew were given basically unfettered access to the country, including the cooperation of the military and the ability to close roads as necessary for the production. Rent it, buy it, download it, borrow it, whatever it takes. Just see The Last Kind of Scotland because it is absolutely fantastic.