Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spawn of Saddam: The Devil’s Double

Somewhere in the lower depths of Hell, Saddam and Uday Hussein are watching this film as they slowly roast on their spits. Graphically dramatizing the sadist brutality and drug-fueled hedonism of Saddam Hussein’s ruling family, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York, after leaving Sundance audiences completely slack-jawed earlier this year.

Latif Yahia had the profound misfortune to resemble Saddam’s psychotic son Uday. Even more despised than his despot father, Uday recruited Yahia to serve as his double. It is not like the Iraqi officer is given any choice in the matter. He could either relinquish his identity to serve as Uday’s public doppelganger or his family would be tortured to death in Abu Ghraib. He knows the junior Hussein means it only too well. As his first tutorial on being Uday, Yahia is forced to watch videotape of his shadow-self at work as the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, raping and tormenting the nation’s athletes. It is a disturbing scene, but Double is just getting started.

Beginning during the Iran-Iraq War and continuing through the first Gulf War, Double forces viewers to witness Uday’s crimes up-close-and-personal. We watch as he abducts underage school girls straight off the street and violently rapes newlywed brides still in their wedding dresses. Truly, there is really no perversion too heinous for him.

Obviously, being a party to such crimes, albeit against his will, takes a profound emotional toll on Yahia. While his assignment progressively eats away at his soul, Yahia embarks on a dangerous affair with Sarrab, Uday’s favorite amongst his women on-call. Yet, even without their assignations, it is clear life in the House of Saddam is always brutish and short-lived.

It is one thing to intellectually concede the crimes of the Husseins, but it is quite another to confront it in such visceral and immediate terms. To its credit, Double waters down nothing. Nor does it indulge in any anti-American cheap shots. This is about Uday (and to a much lesser extent Saddam) Hussein’s crimes and Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas offer them absolutely no mitigating circumstances or justifications. Indeed, the extent it depicts the Iraqi Olympic Committee as an extension of Saddam’s secret police will be a genuine revelation for many. (Though no fan of the Husseins, it is important to note the real life Yahia is also a vocal critic of the CIA and Operation Iraqi Freedom.) Yet, Tamahori never neglects the thriller aspects of Yahia’s story, keeping the tension amped up to Mountain Dew levels throughout.

In a truly intense dual role that will probably take years of analysis to recover from, Dominic Cooper gives a career-making performance as Uday and Yahia. In terms of mannerisms (and behavior), his Uday bears a strong resemblance to Pacino in Scarface. Twitchy and erratic, he is an unsettling presence, even when apparently at rest. By contrast, Cooper portrays Yahia as a serious slow burner, outraged and slowly deadened by the atrocities surrounding him. Providing further seasoning, the French Ludivine Sagnier is at her most sensual ever as Sarrab, far eclipsing her sex appeal in films like Mesrine and Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two.

No, Double is not a subtle film. Likely making Double even less palatable to critics, Tamahori and cinematographer Sam McCurdy rendered the film in a wickedly slick, visually dynamic style reminiscent of the 1990’s glory years of Michael Mann and Tony Scott. Without question, this is a major production, with the talented design team perfectly recreating the ostentation and tackiness of Saddam’s palaces.

Predicting unfavorable reviews for Double from politicized critics is a pretty short limb to climb out on. Its implications will threaten many world views. However, it constitutes bold, bravura filmmaking on several levels and features a truly riveting dual performance from Cooper. Highly and enthusiastically recommended, it opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and Union Square 13.