After eight years of focusing on the moral ambiguities of the Iraq occupation, Hollywood has finally offered up what might be the strongest possible apologetic for the war: an unflinching portrait of the murderous dynasty it deposed, with a focus on Saddam Hussein’s psychopathic elder son, Uday. The Devil’s Double, which hit theaters July 29, stars Dominic Cooper as both Uday and his fiday, or body double, Latif Yahia.
Latif, who was a classmate of Uday’s, is an army officer until his striking resemblance to the despot’s son marks him for a special assignment. Accepting the role of fiday only in order to spare his family torture and execution, Latif undergoes extensive plastic surgery to perfect the resemblance. Now there is no turning back. He becomes equal parts confidant and plaything for the capricious and temperamental Uday, who initiates him into his inner circle and indulges him with the same luxuries he himself enjoys. They are “two peas in a pod,” Uday says. But the peas are not equal, even if physically indistinguishable. “You belong to him,” Latif is warned. In a very real sense, he does.
Mentally, though, it’s a different story. Latif takes on the mask of the evil Uday, but he does not take on his character. “You’re a good man in a bad job,” he tells Uday’s security chief. The same can be said of Latif himself. As Uday’s body double, he’s a man with a bad face — and, we’re led to believe, a good soul.
This is the film’s principal weakness. No matter what happens, it portrays Latif as never being corrupted by tyranny’s trappings, including Uday’s trusted prostitute, Sarrab. Latif remains unambiguously the good guy, even as he is sucked deeper and deeper into Uday’s depraved world. In this highly fictionalized film, it is Latif — and not the utterly neglected Iraqi resistance — who conceives and executes the botched assassination of Uday in 1996.
In real life, Latif wasn’t a great army officer who was later drafted as Uday’s double; he was groomed for the job from high school. He was not a hero but a pawn of the regime. Worse yet, he may be a serial liar, and his book — on which the movie is based — a fantasy. Latif told the Sunday Times earlier this year that he was tortured by the CIA and later offered a position in the post-Hussein government.
Still, as a gangster flick, The Devil’s Double ought to be in the running for every cinematic award around. Its pacing, directing, and acting, especially Cooper’s, deserve considerable recognition, not the panning of critics who find it lacking when compared with Scarface. Director Lee Tamahori once directed an episode of The Sopranos, and it is easy to imagine his Saddam Hussein (Philip Quast) as a sort of Tony Soprano — an evil but family-oriented figure who strongly disapproves of his son’s behavior, but has trouble containing it.
If anything, the film surely toned down Uday’s bestial cruelty to avoid an NC-17 rating. After all, this Armani-clad thug raped his way through Baghdad’s schoolgirls; after he had finished, his men dumped their bodies into the marshes outside the city. He tortured Olympic athletes who lost, even going so far as to keep a private torture scorecard listing how many times each player should be beaten after a loss. He snorted coke, guzzled booze, and violated a bride on her wedding day. He executed a friend of his father’s for sport. He carelessly shot his gold-plated AK-47s at crowded parties, knowing that he was immune from punishment if anyone was killed. He once, Latif told a BBC interviewer, got his hands on a “beautiful woman and transformed her into a barely breathing hunk of meat.”
“Just wait until I become president,” Uday is said to have threatened. “I’ll be crueler than my father ever was. You mark my words. You’ll yearn for the time of Saddam Hussein.” But the time of Uday never came. His sadism was too much even for his father, who exiled him for a time to Switzerland, and supplanted him as heir with his younger brother, Qusay. (The Swiss sent Uday back to Iraq after he threatened to kill a waiter.)
Left unanswered both by the movie and by the reviewers is this question: Isn’t the world better off since this mad dog was put down by American soldiers? American filmmakers have proven morally ill-equipped to answer it. It falls instead to New Zealander Lee Tamahori, much as it fell to the unjustly neglected HBO and BBC series House of Saddam. It has become chic to pooh-pooh the wickedness of Arab despots — just this winter, the fashion magazine Vogue featured a puff piece on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s wife, Asma. When so glamorized, evil’s pathologies are seen as mere eccentricities. Tamahori, to his credit, avoids this pitfall, but by turning the story into a gangster movie, he prevents it from being the compelling morality piece it could have been.
— Charles C. Johnson, winner of the 2011 Eric Breindel Collegiate Journalism Award, is a Robert L. Bartley fellow at the Wall Street Journal.