Saturday, March 27, 2010
The Last King of Scotland -- corruption, power, hatred and love
Director: Kevin McDonald, 2006. (R)
Charming. Magnetic. Murderous. Egocentric. All these adjectives describe President Idi Amin who ruled Uganda in the 70s. Looking back we can see with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. But during his rise and initial rule he appeared a savior. McDonald (State of Play) gives us a glimpse into Amin's story through the eyes of a young naive Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, Wanted). This is a gripping film that is inspired by real people and real events.
It's 1970, and Dr. Garrigan, freshly graduated as a medical doctor in Scotland, cannot stand living at home with his conservative physician father, and on a whim randomly chooses Uganda as a destination. Idealistically, he departs to go serve in a medical mission. He wants to make a difference for those he ministers to. But as he arrives, a military coup puts General Amin (Forrest Whittaker, Vantage Point) in control of the country. Hailed as a hero, he is larger than life.
Whittaker inhabits the role and character of Amin in an intense and scary way. He is totally believable as a monster, a man-child of sorts, and worthily won the 2007 Oscar for Best Actor. He shows Amin deluding even himself as despot. His egocentrism is clear in his self-anointed title, "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."
In a freak circumstance Nicholas tends to Amin's hand in an emergency. When Amin discovers he is Scottish, he is elated. Amin has an unexpected passion for Scottish culture and all that is Scottish. He invites Nicholas to become his personal physician, living in luxury in Kampala. Though he initially declines, feeling an obligation to the team he has come to work with, the smooth words and sensual living are enough to persuade him to change his mind.
McDonald does a fine job of portraying Amin as Nicholas sees him. At first he seems a true hero. He is bringing hospitals and education to this needy country. He embodies hope for the people. He inspires with his passion. He has family and friends and loyal followers. All seems well and good. Nicholas sees this side of the ruler and nothing is amiss. But just when we feel a sympathy for Amin, McDonald throws in a scene that begins to undo everything for Nicholas and us.
When Amin generously gives Nicholas a brand-new Mercedes convertible and asks him to take him to the airport, Nicholas drives into a surprise assassination attempt. Facing bullets and death, the violence of the country comes home to him. Seeing Amin later face the would-be killers, Amin's hidden temper and fury emerge. Nicholas sees the paranoia that is born by betrayal (or perception of betrayal).
Nicholas has been seduced by Amin's charisma and blinded by the decadence of the lifestyle he is thrust into. How easily we can be blinded by charm and power. Baron Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Amin is an example of absolute corruption. The trappings of power, wine, women, wealth, can make us forget our ethical beliefs, if we are not careful. That happened to Nicholas. Amin elevates him to become his closest adviser, although he does not listen well to advice. Such a position begets pride and pride comes before a fall (Prov. 16:18).
But where power corrupts, charm seduces. When his murders of opponents (and sometimes friends) came to light, and the press is exposing him for a tyrant, Nicholas advises Amin to meet the press, to give an interview with the journalists. In that scene, Amin wins them over with his charm, easily deflecting their contentious questions and bringing them to laugh with him, as tacit supporters.
Yet for all this charm, Nicholas finds his dream life has become a walking nightmare of betrayal and madness. He himself has crossed the line and has become Amin's white monkey. Now, Amin won't let him leave. He is a captive, a prisoner in a prison without bars. As Amin woos the press, Nicholas stands with him, fearing for his life and wondering how to escape.
An early scene brings home a key ethical point. When Nicholas is called in the middle of the night into the ruler's bedroom, he finds Amin scared to death. He tells Amin, "If you're afraid of dying it shows you have a life worth living." There is some speck of truth to this. However, to really live you need to die first. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (Jn. 12:24-25). We must be ready to die to be ready to live. As Jim Elliot, martyred missionary, once said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Eternal life is worth more than this life; it requires dying to live.
It is only at the end that we see graphic images of the brutality that emerged from Amin's reign. One in particular hits home for Nicholas and for us. A gruesome view of a corpse is enough to give nightmares.
The murderous insanity that Amin brought to Uganda left 300,000 dead. This kind of reign of terror brings with it the overwhelming shadow of hatred. But hatred is not the answer. Nicholas is pulled aside by a Ugandan doctor and told, "I am tired of hatred, Doctor Garrigan. This country is drowning in it. We deserve better. . . Go home. Tell the world the truth about Amin."
Hatred is a cancer. It brings nothing good. It must be conquered, and it can by the two weapons of love and truth. Revealing the truth of Amin's regime would spark the beginning of the end. Truth is freeing (Jn. 8:32). But the truth must be balanced with love (Eph. 4:15). Love is a more powerful force than hatred. Jesus knew this. He came as God incarnate, a God characterized by love (1 Jn. 4:16). The hatred of Satan and the sin-soaked world manifested itself in Jesus' crucifixion. But by absorbing this hatred in his body in his death, Jesus vanquished sin and hatred. Love proved victorious. Love will always win over hatred.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM