Life, unlike bad movies, is seldom obvious. In life, murderous dictators don't appear - especially at first - as mustache-twirling Snidley Whiplash figures, cackling madly (although Mussolini came close). The scary truth about monsters is that they are three-dimensional beings, not cardboard cutouts, who just kill a lot of people, but otherwise put their pants on one leg at a time, like you and I, and that makes them so much scarier than if they came from another planet.
In the best film of the "dictator genre," Oliver Hirschbiegel's brilliant "Downfall," Hitler appears as a man who is kind to his dog and his secretary (roughly in that order), and the impact of the work is all the greater as we witness what a "real person" is capable of doing. In Luis Puenzo's "The Official Story," Pinochet's reign of terror is depicted through a single act of violence, as a door is slammed on Norma Aleandro's hand; the effect is stunning and "real."
In the hands of a less talented director, the story of Idi Amin would be told against mountains of skulls and bones left behind by Uganda's mad ruler in the 1970s. (His total toll is estimated at 300,000.) In Kevin Macdonald's complex, intelligent, gripping "The Last King of Scotland," more than half of the two-hour film subtly implies, hints at the dark forces underneath normalcy while "life goes on."
And so, having established real contact with the audience, a jolly and seductive Forest Whitaker then takes our breath away as the mask comes off, and his Amin reaches out from the screen for your throat.
Macdonald - whose previous works are documentaries, including the Oscar-winning "One Day in September," about the Munich Olympics terrorist incident - looks at Amin through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy), a well-meaning, honest humanitarian slowly seduced by the Scots-loving Amin, who appoints him his personal doctor and then adviser.
The McAvoy character is fictional (although Amin did have a Scottish doctor), coming from Giles Foden's novel of the same name, but just about everything else in the film is based on fact - so much so that some documentary footage is smoothly integrated into the film. And yet, what's important and outstanding about "Last King" is that just as a painting can surpass a photograph in presenting reality, this film conveys the seduction and horror of a brutal dictatorship indirectly, subtly, unexpectedly.
Unexpected - and welcome - are the many flashes of humor, both Whitaker (dictator with personality) and McAvoy (eager pup of a doctor with overactive hormones) making the best of it. The tone is set in the opening sequence, as the frustrated, suppressed young Dr. Garrigan spins a small globe, swearing repeatedly that he will move to the first spot ("the first!") where he points when the globe stops. The first spot turns out to be Canada. McAvoy/Garrigan takes one look, hesitates... and spins again. And so to Uganda...
The linear, freely-flowing story-telling is masterful, taking us from the small village where Dr. Garrigan comes to do good and ends up doing well through a chance meeting with Amin, to Kampala, much court intrigue and colorful depravity (even as the fate of a nation is at stake), and eventually to Entebbe.
Fun and games, authentic scenery (the film was shot in Uganda), subtlety, psychology, a heart-pounding scene at Entebbe (after the hijacking, but before the Israeli rescue), nudity, sex, violence, harrowing questions about "what would you do," and all - "Last King" is a wonderful compendium of facts and greater truths. Also, a hell of a good movie.