- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Sometimes the most momentous decisions are made for us by chance.

Take Nicholas Garrigan, the protagonist in director Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland,” opening nationwide today.

It’s 1970 and Garrigan, a new medical school graduate, is facing a quiet,comfortable life much like that of his father — the elder Dr. Garrigan — in his native Scotland. That thought, however, seems stifling, so the young physician takes out his globe and gives it a spin. “First place you land, you go,” he tells himself with his finger pointed and his eyes closed.

When his finger lands on Canada, he thinks for a moment then spins again. This time, it lands on Uganda, and off he goes — arriving not only at a crucial time in the country’s history but becoming part of it as well.

Nicholas Garrigan is a fictional construct. But the movie — and the Giles Foden novel on which it is based — is inspired by real people and events. Garrigan, played by rising young Scottish actor James McAvoy (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”), is an idealist of the worst sort — the naive kind. He’s a medical missionary in an African nation that became independent from British rule less than a decade before.

Shortly after Garrigan’s arrival, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) seizes power in a coup d’etat. Initially, Garrigan is concerned about the impact but soon joins in the celebration for the new ruler. “Don’t worry, these are General Amin’s men,” one Ugandan tells him. “He fights for the people. This is a happy day for us.”

Sarah Merrit (“The X-Files’” Gillian Anderson), a married doctor Garrigan gets close to, is more the realist, but she can’t convince Garrigan that politicians are all the same. Amin’s magnetic personality works its magic on the Scot as much as it does on the Ugandans. The general and the young doctor meet in an alternately frightening and funny exchange, and Garrigan becomes the president’s personal physician. He doesn’t just witness some of Amin’s infamous crimes — which reportedly included the slaughter of more than 300,000 of his countrymen and accounts of cannibalism — he becomes an unwitting partner to them.

As Amin (often referred to as the “Butcher of Uganda”), Mr. Whitaker’s performance is a tour de force. He’s guaranteed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal and, at this point, must be considered the front-runner for the Best Actor win. It would have been easy to play Amin as pure evil, but Mr. Whitaker’s rendering is more nuanced than that. Idi Amin — despite a reputation for cruelty that began when he was in the British army— did have the support of his people at the start of his eight-year reign as Uganda’s president.

“I am you,” Amin, the son of a single mother, tells his people.

We are as mesmerized by him as Garrigan.

Mr. Whitaker displays both the callousness and charisma that allowed the brutal dictator to remain in power for nearly a decade. But while his portrayal is utterly believable, the script isn’t always so. It’s unclear, for instance, why an inexperienced foreigner like Garrigan is quickly attending high-level meetings in Amin’s place.

On the other hand, what is lifelike is how a young hothead who wants adventure in his life (“something different,” Garrigan says) behaves without regard for how his actions will affect others. As Garrigan gets closer and closer to Amin — which, unknown to Amin, includes an ill-fated involvement with the dictator’s wife, Kay (George Washington University graduate Kerry Washington of “Ray”) — it’s clear he’s playing with fire, putting into jeopardy his own life and the lives of the others.

Currently, there are two films in theaters about political choices and their sometimes deadly consequences. Set in Louisiana, “All the King’s Men” may be closer to home. But “The Last King of Scotland,” with its more sophisticated understanding of the cult of personality and of how idealists are the world’s most dangerous people, has more to teach us. And with Mr. Whitaker’s performance, it’s also engrossing right from the start through its bloody end.

***1/2

TITLE: “The Last King of Scotland”

RATING: R (some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan and Joe Penhall. Based on the novel by Giles Foden.

RUNNING TIME:123 minutes

WEB SITE: www2.foxsearchlight.com/thelastkingofscotland

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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