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A British documentary about the Libyan dictator is a lurid, compelling mess

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In Scarface, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana interrupts date night with his wife in a fancy restaurant to lecture his fellow diners: “You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy!’” indignantly, he tells them, “Say goodnight to the bad guy.” By the time the world finally said goodnight to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, he had been playing the role of bad guy on the global stage for more than 40 years. That includes a strange period, during the last eight years or so of his reign, when the same Western powers that had demonized him for so long decided to embrace him as a reformed good guy. At the same time that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were spreading the message that any approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein other than military annihilation was morally unacceptable, Blair paid an official visit to Gaddafi, legitimizing his regime.


That same week, according to the British TV documentary Mad Dog: Inside The Secret World Of Muammar Gaddafi, British intelligence forces abducted one of Gaddafi’s enemies and delivered the man to the dictator’s justice. (Sentenced to die, he was spared execution thanks to the 2011 uprising that ended with Gaddafi’s own death.) The film includes overheated voiceover narration—possibly by its director-producer, Christopher Olgiati, though there’s no official credit for whoever’s doing the talking.  At one point, the narrator asks one of Gaddafi’s former associates why the U. S. and Britain were so ready to take a forgiving attitude toward the man generally believed to have been responsible for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. By then, the viewer knows that the narrator has a real propensity for leading questions to which everyone already knows the answer, and the answer to this one has been planted at the start of the program, when it’s reported that Libya’s oil reserves netted a billion dollars a week.

The film, whose title comes from Ronald Reagan’s description of Gaddafi as “a mad dog of the Middle East [who] has a goal of worldwide revolution,” is a shapeless, sloppy documentary that mostly bypasses the circumstances of Gaddafi’s coming to power and how he held onto it for so long; it’s in a hurry to get to the juicy stuff. Much of it consists of interviews with various accomplices and victims of Gaddafi’s. One of the former is an ex-CIA operative named Frank Terpil who “ran Gaddafi’s Murder, Incorporated, killing his enemies worldwide,” and is now hiding out in Cuba. His scenes are distracting, because they raise all kinds of questions about how a man winds up on that kind of career path, questions that the film isn’t interested in asking, if only because it knows Terpil isn’t interested in answering them. Terpil also did some consulting for Idi Amin; over a shot of corpses strewn out on a golf course in Uganda, Terpil recalls, “I told him he should stop that. I told him it was not good for tourism.” 


Other interview subjects include Gaddafi’s Brazilian plastic surgeon, a fashion designer who was impressed with Gaddafi’s personally selected phalanx of “female bodyguards, dressed all in black”—“He chose them very well, because they were all very beautiful.”—and a frighteningly jovial German rocket scientist who lives with his wife on their own private island, and who was hired by Gaddafi to build missiles for him. The German says that Gaddafi had “no serious interest” in developing a nuclear program, though he may be the only person on Earth who believes this, if he does believe it. (In a line that would bring a smile to Freud’s face, the narrator says that “Gaddafi was acutely jealous of other people’s bombs.”) The scientist also remembers Gaddafi as being “a very modest, nice person” who hid “his weaknesses under a façade,” while others speak, in awed and appalled tones, of the dictator’s “grandiosity.” At times, the point of the film might almost be that people will do their best to describe the James Bond villain they wish they’d met.

Gaddafi’s villainy isn’t a matter of dispute, but the filmmakers seem almost to wish that he had been a more terrible threat to the world outside the borders of his own country. The film does its best to build him up into an international menace, but it also acknowledges that, for most of his reign, he was regarded by his fellow Arab leaders as a joke. Not that this made life any easier for those unfortunate enough to be within his sphere of power. Four years after Pan Am 103, Gaddafi allegedly ordered a Libyan commercial jet—whose flight number was 1103—shot down. This was apparently his way of saying to the world community, which had imposed sanctions on Libya in response to the Lockerbie bombing, see how my people are suffering because of what you’re doing!


Mad Dog includes video footage of prisoners being beaten and whipped, and televised show trials at which students were sentenced to death for such crimes as having studied in the U. S. One man, a longtime Gaddafi advisor remembers, was sentenced to hang and wasn’t killed when his body dropped, so a woman in the stands came down and pulled on his legs until his neck snapped; “She was promoted to minister.” Mad Dog has a lurid, tabloid feel, and watching it is a grimy, unpleasant experience; it’s full of evidence of the darkness of the human soul, but it’s not very enlightening, except maybe on the subject of those who suck up to monsters in power. The best that can be said of it is that it may be the documentary Gaddafi deserves. That’s also the worst that can be said of it.

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