During the glorious decade lasting from 1992 to 2002, there were few occupations more lucrative for an Iraqi male of a certain age than professional Saddam Hussein impersonator. While children scrounged for food under the weight of the U.S. embargo and their parents prayed nightly to Allah that another Bush didn't become President of America and really screw things up, stocky, mustachioed men in their late 50s lived the good life, pretending to be the leader of the Ba'ath Party to throw off would-be assassins. But the good life came crashing to a halt in 2006 when, following the invasion and occupation of Iraq by coalition forces, the real Saddam Hussein was executed, and those impersonators without the foresight to plan for an early retirement found themselves out of a job. Even hack actor Jerry Haleva – who appeared as the tyrant of Tikrit in myriad Zucker-Abrahams productions and in The Big Lebowski hasn't worked since 2002.
That all changed when production of the juicy mini-series House of Saddam was announced in 2006. Saddam Hussein himself provided the only possible ending to every biopic when he dangled in front of a cell phone camera on December 30 of that year, and immediately after, writer/director Alex Holmes and his colleagues got to work on producing this mini-series about the intrigues and outrages of the man and his family. A joint production of the BBC and HBO, the series has the pedigree to be well worth watching, and it was pretty well-received in Britain when it first aired this August. My main concern going into it was how it would deal with the political aspects of Saddam Hussein's story. The hook that most critics hug on the mini-series was that it was "The Sopranos go Middle Eastern", which is undeniably fun-sounding, but risks glossing over the fact that the history of Saddam Hussein is inextricably linked with international politics, and it's a convoluted history at that, which, if delved into too deeply, might bore the average viewer, but if glossed over completely, would prove unsatisfying. Which way would they go – dry but damning political legend-building, or sanguine but slick criminal soap opera?
In the early goings, it certainly seems like the latter, although the touchstone – with the back-room standoffs, the cigar-smoking cronies discussing going legit with their business while plotting bloody deeds, and the chilling way people are lured into arranging their own doom – seems to be the Godfather movies rather than The Sopranos. The washed-out, yellowy cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister, which strongly recalls Gordon Willis' work in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece, simply drives that point home further. (Even a scene depicting terror attacks in Baghdad by the Islamic Dawa Party deliberately recall the revolving-door assassination scene in The Godfather.) Politics are always present, but they tend to be glossed over rather than explored; anyone lacking the background knowledge of what the Ba'ath Party stood for, how they came to power, and what led to their conflict with the Iranian fundamentalists in the 1980s isn't going to get it here. That level of subtlety, and the general feel that these were people who existed in the context of international politics, is thrown by the wayside in favor of gangster drama dressed in Arabic clothing.
But this isn't necessarily a flaw. After all, dictatorial regimes have always had a sort of gangster quality to them, and if Holmes and company sacrifice a certain political and historical verisimilitude to tell their story of Baghdad as a sort of Mafia stronghold that takes over a whole country, it does give them license to bring in the kind of dramatic scenes that give House of Saddam's cast a chance to show off. Yigal Naor as Saddam Hussein is always terrific, unflappable and calculating with a chilling presence that makes the comparisons with Stalin comprehensible, and he's surrounded by political and military cronies whose combination of film-star flashiness and gutter-dwelling ugliness is straight out of mob-film central casting (Uri Gavriel as "Chemical" Ali Hassan and Amr Waked as Hussein Kamel are the two extreme points on this spectrum, and both are fantastic). As is often the case in gangster films, though, women are the weak spot: an attempt to cast Saddam Hussein's mother (played by a troll-like Izabella Telezynska) as a sort of Livia Soprano character seems to have wandered in from a different movie, and a subplot involving his affair with a blonde schoolteacher goes nowhere.
After the strong-arm stuff in episode I, broken up by the occasional and fascinating bit of period footage like a goofy propaganda cartoon in which a tank takes potshots at a ludicrous caricature of the Ayatollah, politics finally comes center stage in the second installment. The narrative skips ahead a decade, casually mentioning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Iran/Iraq war, and at first we're treated to more family drama: Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, have blossomed from ineffectual snots to full-blown vulgar shits, and dad's affair with the schoolteacher, which mostly consisted of her hanging around in hallways looking seductive, has caused a lot of tension at family dinners. Well, that and all the gassing-the-Kurds stuff. After a terrifying interlude featuring Saddam Hussein in a Speedo bathing suit, though, we finally get into the gaming of the invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq's war has cost the country billions in revenue, and with oil prices fluctuating, there's little money to pay the soldiers who fought it. Political pressure from America is on the upswing, and Kuwait's rich oil fields – and scant military strength – are a mighty temptation. First, though, there's the matter of what to do with victorious general Adnan Hamdani (an excellent performance by Waleed Zuaiter). While foreign minister Tariq Ali accuses Kuwait of drinking up Iraq's collective milkshake, Saddam Hussein has to deal with both the growing popularity of Hamdani and the wild drunken rampages of his worthless dipshit of a son, Uday, played by Phillip Arditti in a performance so loathsome that you can't wait until the pimp-hatted jackoff gets scragged by U.S. forces (spoiler alert!). Needless to say, things don't end well for anyone here, especially the audience, which is subjected to long minutes of overacting by Shohreh Aghdashloo. The subsequent treatment of the Kuwaiti invasion suffers from a awfully light treatment of the devastating economic, environmental and human cost of the war (five minutes of Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness do a better a better job), but again, it's to allow some terrific acting, as Saddam Hussein's domination of those around him, even in the depths of defeat, is conveyed in a few gripping scenes.
Episode II ends with a defiant Saddam Hussein thumbing his nose at America, having been chased out of Kuwait. Hussein is able to spin it into a victory, as U.S. forces won't give chase across the border, and President George H.W. Bush has to portray his reasonable decision not to do so as not being a wimpy cop-out. Lucky for all of is, his own worthless dipshit of a son would correct that mistake, as I'm sure we'll find out in episode III. Overall, the first two installments were quite strong: the decision to brush off real-world political complexities, fascinating as they are, in favor of mob-style family drama allows Holmes to focus on the small moments that allow his cast to shine. The set and costume design, combined with outstanding cinematography and well-chosen historical footage, makes House of Saddam a gorgeous-looking mini-series, as well. Hopefully, with the next two installments being packed with real-world events, there'll be less time to spend on the non-starter subplots that slowed the first two down.
– A chilling scene in episode one drives home the Stalinist nature of the Ba'ath revolution: during a show trial for one of Saddam Hussein's political enemies, a list of those accused of conspiring against him is read aloud. As they're dragged out of the meeting hall, those remaining learn the value of applauding loudly whenever the new boss' name is mentioned.
– This series could really have done without the heavy-handed score by Samuel Sim.
– There aren't a lot of boffo laffs in House of Saddam, but there's a swell moment near the end of episode I where the security chief, played by a histrionic Saïd Taghmaoui, announces his "wedding gift" of razing a village in retaliation for an assassination attempt. Naor, whose daughter is standing not five feet away, gives him an absolutely perfect "get the fuck out of here" look.
– I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that one of the reasons I wanted to see House of Saddam was because it had the potential to be a big showcase for Arab actors. As an Arab-American, I'm mildly obsessed with the lack of roles offered to Arab actors, and the mini-series offered plenty of meaty roles where they wouldn't, technically, be playing terrorists. As it happens, Saddam Hussein is played by an Israeli, his wife by a Persian, his son Uday by a Turk, and various other family and political advisors by Indians, Pakistanis, Greeks and Australians, but we are treated to a terrific performance by Palestinian actor Makram Khoury as Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister. Ironically, Aziz isn't an Arab, but an Assyrian Christian. Oh well.