Before the closing credits, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald rolls out vintage footage of the real Idi Amin Dada, Uganda’s satanic majesty in all his grinning girth. It’s not clear if this is done to benefit the audience or as a self-congratulatory gesture intended to show off Forest Whitaker’s startling physical likeness to the dictator. In any event, it’s a telling fadeout for a timid failure. James McAvoy is Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who heads to Uganda on a lark in the early 1970s (he wants to “make a difference”) and is co-opted by freshly empowered Amin, whose ascent is facilitated by the British.
Garrigan has pretty-boy looks and an incomprehensible obliviousness to manipulation. He thus becomes Amin’s personal advisor and watches lamely as Nero burns Rome. The story such as it is ends there and recycles. Macdonald repeatedly fails to transform gripping material into anything other than a morass of platitudes uttered brilliantly by Whitaker’s triumphant Amin. “A man who shows fear is weak, and he is a slave.” “Nicholas, you have never been poor.” So it is that Whitaker’s juiciest role since “Ghost Dog” is lessened to make room for Garrigan’s bewilderment.
Perhaps putting Amin front and center intimidated Macdonald, demanding a mature treatment of the tyrant’s moods and appetites, the source of his whims, and the nature of his eight-year rule. Instead, he gives Whitaker an array of quivering smiles and scowls from which to draw at will. Whitaker is to Amin what Marlon Brando was to Col. Kurtz in “Apolcaypse Now,” a perspiring mystery wrapped in an enigma. But Brando was tasked to culminate, not carry, a movie.