Embrace of Evil

Posted October 17, 2007 in Film

 Idi Amin was a bad mofo, and in his Uganda, the penalty for not shutting your mouth was execution. But to impetuous (and fictitious) Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the loony ex-dictator—whose self-designated titles included “King of Scotland” and “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshall 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”—Idi’s not such a bad guy. He’s chummy, generous, and larger-than-life, and Forest Whittaker gobbles up the role like Amin did the country’s bank account.

Compared to Nicholas’ dull life in the British Isles, which he’s recently escaped from via a medical school degree and posting in Africa, Idi’s Uganda is paradise. It’s a country where a wet-behind-the-ears chap like himself can get crowned the President’s personal physician with little else but spunk and good timing, like the Lana Turner of bureaucracy. Plus, since Amin claims to be in perfect health (aside from painful gassiness), Nicholas’ major duties entail driving sports cars, drinking liquor, dancing with the gorgeous native women, and judging palace swimming races where Idi always wins. And ignoring sourpatch English journalists who ask him if he’s at all curious about the fates of the 300,000 locals who have “vanished” under his boss’ regime. What downers.

Not that Giles Foden’s 1998 novel (picturesquely directed here by Kevin MacDonald) concerns itself much either with those lost souls. Instead, it’s a study of power and posturing, as what Amin most likes about the callow Nicholas is that they both refuse to admit weakness. Amin appreciates that Nicholas is a rogue; they bond over firearms and Nicholas’ affair with a cynical village doctor (Gillian Anderson), which he exaggerates from a kiss to a bonking in order to impress the dictator. Underneath their laddish fixations, however, one’s a paranoiac killer and the other is an immature thrill seeker in over his head.

Power is seductive. (Take Donald Trump.) And the best choice MacDonald and Foden make is to show how easy it is to fall under its sway. Nicholas is no angel—he’s a shallow jackass—but most of us would make his same fateful choices. Rural shack or palace? Honesty or safety? Nightmares or blissful ignorance? In indicting Nicholas for opportunism, this film indicts us all. Like pressing your nose to a painting, he’s so close to evil, he can’t see it. But with a contrived affair between Nicholas and Amin’s third wife (Kerry Washington)—a move so head-slappingly dumb, it ranks right up there with “Don’t go into the creepy basement!”—the film stumbles as it veers away from a portrait of human frailty and impales itself on melodrama. From there, it’s all nonsense as our anti-hero sweats to get our sympathies trying to escape from Amin’s deadly pleasure palace. The dictator’s reluctant to lose his token white Western boy. Wrapping his beefy arms around the slender Nicholas, Amin coos that “Uganda embraces you.” Only from our perspective, it looks like a death grip.


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