dir: Kevin McDonald
You might be under the mistaken impression that this is a biopic about the tyrant Idi Amin, or about a real guy. Especially since Forest Whitaker won the Academy award for his portrayal of the murderous dictator. He’s such a big, cuddly, googly-eyed teddy bear, isn’t he?
But this flick is pretty much a fictionalisation of events that went on during that time, Uganda in the 70s. There was no young idealistic doctor who was seduced with the best of intentions by a charismatic leader who ended up turning a blind eye to his own complicity in the atrocities that ensued. So Dr Nicholas Garrigan is a complete fabrication. He’s tenuously based on a guy called Bob Astles, but that guy was no vestal virgin in the first place, so such a story doesn’t fly.
[img_assist|nid=811|title=Hmm, I feel like some lunch. Where's my treasurer at?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=247]No, Astles was an ex-British Army wheeler and dealer who held positions of power in the Ugandan government way before Amin came to power.
The film is based on the book by Giles Fadden that creates this Faustian dynamic between an idealistic young Scotsman (played ably by James McAvoy) and a larger than life leader who was too large for many other people’s lives as well. It shouldn’t be mistaken for a history lesson with any degree of accuracy.
That being said, this ends up being a very entertaining film turned into something of a thriller, since you’re always waiting for the hammer to fall. And as you’re wondering how a young Scottish doctor can be naïve enough to ignore everything that’s going on around him, you’re wondering when it will be time for him to pay the piper.
Garrigan graduates from university with a degree in medicine, with the expectation being that he will go into practice with his father. This prospect makes him scream with frustration, so he endeavours to get the fuck out of dodge and to find adventure out in the big, wide world. Whilst pointing at random at a globe, he decides on Uganda.
Uganda is, in 1970, another one of those tinpot former colonial coolie plantations lorded over by the British. Recent independence means that instead of fighting against the superior and lawful authority of their colonial masters, the Ugandans are now free to fight over the crumbs of power amongst each other.
As Garrigan travels across the country, a new charismatic leader comes to power after a bloody coup against the Obote regime. General Idi Amin, formerly of the British Rifles, is now supreme leader. He promises his people a brighter future ahead and wealth for everyone. He promises sight to the blind, walking to the lame, longer cocks and firmer breasts for all and sundry! And of course the crowds sing and dance and cheer at first, with the more cynical remembering that that’s how the previous incumbent came to power as well.
Like most murderous tyrants and wifebeaters, it’s all flowers and chocolates at first. It is at this time that Garrigan comes to his attention when their paths cross after a car accident.
Amin immediately bonds with the young doctor, especially loving the fact that Garrigan is Scottish, since Amin served with a Scottish regiment against the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya and feels some strange kinship with the Scots. Although Garrigan is busy doctoring those Ugandans living in squalor, and occupied with trying to fuck other men’s wives (Gillian Anderson, yes, THAT Gillian ‘Scully’ Anderson), he finds Amin’s offer of tenure as his personal physician and adviser too good to resist.
For some reason he ignores the conventional wisdom on what power does to any leader in Africa, and believes Amin genuinely is a good leader with the interests of his people at heart. When Amin tells him that Garrigan will play a major role in helping the people of Uganda, Garrigan believes him. Clearly, this chap lacks even the most rudimentary of bullshit detectors, because he believes even the most extravagant spin Amin can think of. Honestly, most of Amin’s more outrageous lines are on the level of “cheque’s in the mail”, “I’m not drunk” and “I promise I won’t come in your mouth”, yet Garrigan is wide-eyed and nodding like he doesn’t need any more hits of Kool-Aid for a while.
And who wouldn’t want to sip from the Jim Jones hipflask? Amin is a giant, paternal figure with charisma to burn, with a winning manner that turns the gullible into putty. We know that things aren’t going to turn out that well for anyone involved, especially the Ugandans, but Garrigan seems wilfully blind to the reality beyond what any rational, intelligent person could manage sober.
It starts off ambiguous at first (you could argue), but it becomes increasingly obvious that Amin is as crazy as a shit house rat, and more paranoid than a tweaker who’s been up three days on the pipe. Garrigan lets everything slide and even sticks up for him against his detractors. It becomes rapidly obvious to him and to us that Amin isn’t even bothering to hide the atrocities he is committing. But what are you going to do, boys will be boys after all.
The good doctor becomes more and more complicit in the terror going on, until he can only barely stomach it any longer. At which point, knowing how brutal, paranoid and childish Amin can be, he starts having sex with one of Amin’s many wives. Now, I can’t blame him from the point of view that Kay (Kerry Washington) is very attractive, but it’s pretty unbelievable that when mountains of corpses are mounting in the streets, and Amin is having people killed just for looking at him funny, Garrigan would think it was a wise course of action. Considering the magnitude of Amin’s spying networks and paranoia, I just don’t buy it. Unless you argue that he’s feeling a little bit suicidal.
When the shit comes down, I have to admit I kind of wanted Garrigan to get it and goode. It’s not right, and I’m not proud of the impulse. I just felt so contemptuous of him for being so wilfully stupid, for so little in return. McAvoy does fine in the role, it’s just that the character is a bit blank and a tad irritating. He’s an arrogant little shit who rarely comes out of Forest Whitaker’s shadow. And, added to that, Whitaker’s Amin acts him off the screen. It’s not a fair comparison since Whitaker is free to overact to the nth degree, because how else are you going to play such a giant, murderous puppy?
But when it really does come down, I have to admit that even I was shocked by how nasty it gets. You expect the worst and then something even more awful comes along to surprise you. I guess ‘thankyou’ is the word I’m looking for?
The story raps up coincidentally at the same time as the first major PLO hijacking of an Israeli jet that ends up at Entebbe airport. Two awful events, only one of them based on real events occur at the same time, and we are left wondering whether the complicit and the collaborators with evil deserve grace or mercy at all. Is the personal physician to a dictator who kills hundreds of thousands of his own people guilty even if all he does is prescribe a little aspirin and cocaine every now and then? Is he ever.
Amin died in his eighties, living high on the hog in Saudi Arabia, which serves as the grimmest punchline a story like this can have. Still, the story’s point seems to be that those who blind their own eyes to the evil around them because it suits them and they profit from it are as guilty as those with their fingers on the triggers or wrapped around the handles of the machetes. Lie down with a grandiose madman and his Regime O’Death, and be forever tainted. And innocence becomes a luxury none can afford.
The flick, well shot and well paced, emphasises and reinforces my long held belief that we should be wary of ALL who seek power, regardless of where it is or how they came to it. I cannot imagine individuals who aspire to power over people who aren’t prepared to sacrifice those people to maintain that power, I just can’t conceive of it.
7 bloodless coups, all smotherings, out of 10
“You came to Africa to play the white man. But we aren't a game. We're real. This room is real. Your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you.” – The Last King of Scotland.