Went to see "The Last King of Scotland", an excellent, horrific film with real monsters inside. There's been some confusion and quibbling about the filmmakers' statement that novel and film are "based on real people and real events". Let me offer a clarification: the crimes, the criminals and the victims shown in the film are all true. The storytellers have inserted a character, a Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy, to serve as eyewitness and as a exemplar of what happens when you stand too close to The Big Bad and you think it's all a game.

All through the first part of the film, as the doctor lets himself be flattered and entertained into moving in with Idi Amin, I kept thinking of Albert Speer, Hitler's handsome young architect and Minister of Armaments, who later wrote an important memoir called Inside the Third Reich. That book tells us "it is hard to recognize the Devil when he's standing by your shoulder," and the psychology of McAvoy's fictional character is certainly plausible. When I became friends with a elderly German engineer who had been a card carrying member of the Luftwaffe in World War II, he told me that Speer's book came closest to capturing his own experience: he was young and amoral, he had an freshly minted engineering degree but no job, and here came this man offering good pay and an unlimited budget, and lots of interesting little problems to solve...

It's only fair to make the point that our culture really doesn't believe something happened unless it happens to one of us. There's something metafictional about our generation watching a story about a character who thinks this is all one big adventure, that nothing matters unless it matters to him, but never mind. Pursue that route too far, and you start blaming Ishmael for surviving "Moby Dick". If he'd REALLY been committed, he'd have died with the rest of them! ... But then who would live to tell the stories and bear witness?

Gillian Anderson, in a small role as a mission nurse, is the one who first asks the doctor if he's Real or not, and warns him that life isn't a game, that the charismatic Amin might not be a trustworthy playmate. She keeps her integrity, traveling with the wounded and the refugees, while the Scottish doctor runs off to play. When she reappears, it's as a sad face through a bus window, looking back at a small man trapped in Hell.

Kerry Washington, as Amin's doomed wife Kay, is the lonely woman who makes the mistake of trusting the feckless Scot. Kay's death is as it was in the film: Kay was murdered by Amin, and her dismembered corpse displayed in a grotesque pose for her children to see, so that Amin could shout at them about what a bad woman their mother was. The only fictional character in this scene, the Scottish doctor, has the good graces to vomit. He is the audience's representative, standing witness to what this good and beautiful woman was before the monsters turned her beauty into garbage. The explicit nature of this scene, and the children's solemn stare, ought to shame the millionaires who gave civilization the slasher film.

In a moment before he takes Kay as a lover, the swinging doctor says "Fuck it" and hungrily kisses her in spite of the danger to her and to himself. This is the battle cry of our generation who came of age in the era of Reagan and Thatcher. They inhaled their cocaine and made the dealer's life a romance, knowing full well that the high traveled north in the stomach of a campesino, but Fuck the Third World and Chile too, as long those dirty Communists are kept in line and we get our raw materials. Fuck the Rust Belt and Fuck the Cambodians and the Afghans too, who cares what kind of monsters rule over them so long as we stick a finger in Russia's eye-- and then our entire generation of whores had the gall to express surprise when the Third World flew planes into our towers. Is anyone really surprised that Idi Amin lived out his comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, another wealthy nation that has consistently sheltered serpents in its bosom? Or that no industrial country has had the backbone to forswear the Saudi royals? Perhaps the royal family has embraced our American value of sponsoring dangerous people for so long as they pick on someone else, anyone else but me.


Anonymous said...

I've tried to understand how or why people stayed behind in Germany =watching or ignoring what was going on around them.(Most of my relatives got OUT! "The Good German" by Joseph Kanon helped me understand and now give some empathy of the Scottish Doctor's plight with "when will this wrong turn end?" Not everyone wants to deal with reality and when it strikes them ---it can be mean.
Reflecting, Dee Ann

Anonymous said...

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more it troubled me that the filmmakers had to invent a white character with whom viewers could identify. I know the plot took a couple of turns that hinged on his being Scottish/white, but I think it could have been done with a black hero . . . so why wasn't it? Not marketable? --Pat