There are moments in The Last King of Scotland (rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content, and language) when you think Forest Whitaker deserves every last Oscar nod he's getting-when, as former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, he plays the bluff jokester, then later whips around in paranoid, barking rage, his lips and eyelids quivering.
Amin was both delusional and shrewd, brutal and childlike. He had fetishes, too, like his obsession with Scotland and liberating it from the English-hence his self-proclaimed title as the nation's last king. He took power in a 1971 coup and ruled Uganda for the next eight years, butchering 300,000 of his countrymen. Whitaker makes the film mesmerizing as he harnesses pure evil on screen.
The movie is based on Giles Foden's well-researched 1998 novel. At the beginning, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, Narnia) lusts for adventure. Spinning a globe, he drops his finger on Uganda, and we soon find him at Mulago's rural medical mission. It turns out Garrigan also has other lusts: chasing local women and his colleague's wife.
But Garrigan soon finds himself in Kampala. When Amin sprains his wrist in a car accident involving a cow, Garrigan binds it. The Scot's work delights Amin, and he asks Garrigan to become his personal doctor.
Amin treats Garrigan as his "closest advisor," giving him a Mercedes sports car and having him lead high-level meetings. Loyal to Amin, Garrigan asks him to question health minister Jonah Wasswa (Stephen Rwangyezi) about a seemingly suspicious meeting with a foreigner. By now rumors are brewing about Amin's killings, but only when Wasswa is murdered does Garrigan recognize Amin's true nature. "You did it," Amin says. Seeing his own moral descent, Garrigan tries to escape.
The novel's Garrigan is far less juvenile and gullible than the film's Garrigan. He discerns Amin's cruelties early but is too self-centered and weak to break free. So the original character is more didactic, showing how moral weakness enables evil. But Whitaker's performance rules the film, bringing to life a terrifying figure in African history.