In 1970, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) had just graduated as a doctor, but as he and his family settled down for a quiet celebration of stew and a glass of alcoholic beverage kept for special occasions, he was well aware that he could not stand the thought of staying in this small Scottish community and essentially being the assistant to his G.P. father. So that night in his bedroom, he took a globe and spun it, vowing to travel to wherever his finger stopped it at. It stopped at Canada, but he wasn't keen, so he spun it again, this time stopping on Uganda - which was why Nicholas ended up in that African country just as it won its independence...
Of course, there was no such person as Nicholas Garrigan, the Scottish doctor who became General Idi Amin's closest "advisor" and personal physician, but it's more the bigger picture that history paints which concerned the makers of The Last King of Scotland, rather than the smaller details such as who was really around back then in that troubled state. If you want a proper history lesson, then this only meets you halfway, creating a fictional adventure to reach some kind of truth about what life was really like under Amin's rule and by and large succeeding, if somewhat surprisingly, in humanising a man who amounted to a likeable monster.
Much of this is down to the brilliant performance of Forest Whitaker in the title role - Amin thought of himself as an honorary Scot for reasons best known to himself - a turn which won him a well-deserved Oscar. While McAvoy does well enough in a somewhat earnest but naive part, it is Whitaker who made this worth seeing, illustrating why so many warmed to the dictator and even more importantly, bringing out why it was such a terrible tragedy that a hope for an independent African country emerging from the days of colonialism was so cruelly dashed when that leader brought nothing but suffering to his people.
Alas, a lot of this is somewhat lost as the focus relies on Nicholas to tell the story, and he isn't half as interesting a character as Amin is. In addition, there's an uncomfortable feeling that it was thought the only way to bring this story to the world was through the eyes of a white man, and a made-up for the purposes of drama white man at that, which begs the question were there no actual Ugandans who could have been the centre of the action, other than Amin himself, who is wheeled on like a star turn a little too often. What a star turn it is, granted, but Whitaker isn't the protagonist, and we see Amin's behaviour as if through the eyes of a tourist, charmed at first, flattered by his interest, then discomfited by his tyranny.
Of course, if you know anything about the General then you know he was a violent man responsible for the deaths of thousands, so there is a sense of waiting for Nicholas to catch up with the rest of us as he gradually cottons on to the nature of his new best friend. According to this, he meets Amin when his troops call for a doctor after crashing into a cow on the road, and when he attends to the sprain on the new leader's hand, then shoots the cow to put it out of its misery, then reveals he is Scottish to the delighted Amin, he has as good as signed a contract with the devil. To follow there is illicit romance with one of Amin's wives, Kay (Kerry Washington), and a lot of McAvoy looking nervous in the face of the dazzling Whitaker as yet another scheme comes up. Elsewhere, director Kevin Macdonald crams in the key events such as the expulsion of the Asians and the Entebbe hijack incident, and we even get a bit of accordion (no cannibalism, though), yet while this is all worth seeing, there's too much of the "white explorer in Darkest Africa" about it to wholly satisfy. Music by Alex Heffes.