We just got back from seeing The Last King of Scotland, Kevin MacDonald’s film about a Scotsman, played by James McAvoy, who becomes the personal doctor of Idi Amin, the president of Uganda, played by Forest Whitaker, in 1971. Here’s the trailer, which does a great job of giving a sense of the film’s suspenseful action and political themes:

The film is based on a novel by Giles Foden. Many of the political events depicted in the film are true, but the main character, McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan, is fictional. Garrigan is based, in part, on a British soldier who became a key advisor to Amin.

I really liked this film. Recent articles have compared this movie to The Queen and Forest Whitaker’s performance to Helen Mirren‘s — both purport to show us the private lives of public rulers during historically accurate events in their lives. In fact, though, I found this movie to be much better than The Queen. I still hope Mirren wins the Oscar, but The Last King of Scotland doesn’t feel like a made-for-t.v. movie like The Queen does. This film is both sweeping in its depiction of Amin’s brutality and the violence of his dictatorship and an intimate portrayal of one man’s interactions with him.

Whitaker certainly deserves all of the accolades that he is receiving for this role. He manages first to humanize Amin and then slowly to show us this man’s inhumanity and mental instability. It’s a towering performance, which explains why Whitaker is up for Best Actor when in fact his role is a supporting one. He will certainly be robbed if he doesn’t win.

James McAvoyThe lead actor in this film is actually McAvoy, pictured here in a promotion shot for the Toronto Film Festival. He is the heart and soul of this story, and McAvoy does an excellent job showing us how and why his character can become involved with Amin and then slowly realize all of his mistakes in doing so. He manages to embody his character with an idealism that seems genuine, especially as we come to see it as based, at least in part, on a fundamental racism. He wants to “make a difference” in Africa, but he knows nothing about the continent or the nation of Uganda. His idealism is ultimately exposed as naivete.