Hello, House of Saddam fans! As all six of you who actually watched this four-part HBO/BBC mini-series recall, the last time we left our hero, he was standing on the corpses of a large percentage of his army, thumbing his nose at the retreating Americans. How did we get from this point, where an increasingly smug (albeit also increasingly nutty) Saddam Hussein had snatched a sort of victory from the jaws of defeat, to him reaching the literal end of his rope? Since I didn't read any newspapers from 1991 to 2006, the suspense is killing me!
As you may recall, I was fairly generous with the grading for the first two installments of House of Saddam, feeling that the generally strong acting and the gorgeous film work outweighed the go-nowhere family drama and the glossing over of the historical sweep of events. I was a bit more ambiguous on the series' central conceit, in which Saddam Hussein and his government are essentially portrayed as an organized crime outfit: while it isn't entirely inaccurate and sets up the terrific dramatic scenes that allow creator Alex Holmes' cast to show off, it also requires us to care about personal issues involving la famille Hussein that are actually pretty boring, and it leaves you with no real sense of how inextricably the stuff we're watching on screen was linked with international politics. The concluding two episodes, which take place from 1995 until Saddam Hussein's death two years ago, were periods crammed with hot, nasty political action, so I went into it hoping that we'd ditch the crime-opera angle and get into some real hardcore historical epic sweep. It would cost a lot more to go in that direction, of course, but hey, that's what British people pay their license fees for.
Watching this week in HDTV, which I forgot I had last week, I'm even more impressed at how this show looks. Holmes, co-director Jim O'Hanlon, and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister clearly know what they're doing visually, which is why it's all the more frustrating that the script takes so many shortcuts. As a brief opening credit sequence glosses over the complexity of the sanctions in the 1990s, and plays fast and loose with the role of United Nations weapons inspectors and their search for WMDs. Then, it's straight back to the Family Feud aspect, as rotten elder son Uday continues to drink, whore it up, and engage in food fights with rival general Hussein Kamal. This carrying on reaches a fever pitch when (in another scene of extremely dubious historicity) Uday hijacks several truckloads of medical supplies meant for the children of Iraq and sells them on the black market. He sticks a huge silver-plated handgun in Hussein Kamal's face, quotes Arnold Schwarzenegger, snorts blow, and rapes an innocent waitress in a toilet to top it all off. Unfortunately, we aren't treated to a scene of him evicting an elderly woman from her home, and he's too well-groomed to twirl his mustache evilly, but otherwise, his function in episode III is to make his dad look like a level-headed, thoughtful leader.
Saddam Hussein isn't much of a help, or even a presence, in the third episode: he's gone off the rails entirely, having a copy of the Q'uran written in his own blood and claiming to be descended from Mohammed. We're thus denied Yigal Naor's excellent acting during long stretches where Hussein Kamel defects with his wife and tries to drum up a CIA insurrection against his father-in-law. (By the way, while Uri Gavriel continues to impress as Ali Hassan, where's his wife? I always found the way they were referred to as "Chemical and Mrs. Ali" hilarious, and surely we could have been spared some of the scenes of Saddam Hussein's daughter making sad faces in deference to meeting the illustrious Madame Chemical.) Given how key House of Saddam makes his image as the mob boss who holds the whole regime together, he's sorely missed in the lengthy stretches when he's not on screen. Underestimating Saddam Hussein's craftiness, Kamel finally gets his in an ugly show of vengeance, but it's too little too late; Episode III seems aimless and meandering, and is easily the weakest of the series.
Episode IV doesn't waste any time screwing around with nit-picking at little details, like why the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. happened, or how the entire thing was gamed with as much calculation by the Bush Administration as the invasion of Kuwait was gamed by the Saddam Hussein Administration. The whole phony buildup to the war is mentioned not at all – although surely there was some potential for dramatic scenes involving the Hussein family there! – and the invasion and occupation itself takes up all of seven minutes of screen time. It's at this point that you start to notice what isn't being shown far more than what is, and the tense showdown between the weapons inspectors and the Iraqi government, which was given so much screen time in the previous episode, is given nothing here. (What's more, just when we thought we were done with the subplot involving mistress Christine Stephen-Daly, we are treated to a rather pointless scene of a disguised Saddam Hussein breaking up with her on a pay phone. Bad form!)
The scenes that follow are actually pretty gripping – Saddam Hussein's life in hiding, reduced to pathetic circumstances after decades of stolen glory, has a pitiful poignancy, and there's some real suspense in scenes where his recorded message urging the people of Iraq to resist the occupation is smuggled from hand to hand under the nose of U.S. forces. Naor even shows us a rare human side in some friendly interaction with his bodyguards, the only men who still stand with him after his fall. An attempt to interject Karim Fakharany as a sort of Cousin Oliver character is thankfully abandoned early on, and makes room for the ultimate comeuppance of Qusay and Uday, which is highly suspenseful and chilling, and beautifully filmed with the aid of hand-held cameras.
Of course, everyone knows how this particular story ends, but there's several more scenes of Saddam Hussein's inglorious days in hiding that are tense, well-written, subtle, and a fine showcase for Yigal Naor's acting, about which not enough can be said. In fact, it's these scenes that save the whole fourth episode, and salvage some of the damage done by the dismal episode III. While House of Saddam never lets you forget you are dealing with a self-deluding, brutal monster, it does do a good job, in its final scenes, of reminding you of the great tragedy of watching even a monster who has fallen from power. One day, you're humiliating your enemies and holding an entire ancient culture in the palm of your hand, and then they're pulling you roughly out of a hole in the ground covered with a Styrofoam cooler; one day, you're liberating that same ancient culture from the grip of a tyrant, and then some guy is throwing a shoe at you.
– Good as Naor is, he has one moment
– when he learns of Hussien Kamal's betrayal and defection, and responds by throwing a glass at a wall and screaming "TRAITORS!", that can only be described as Shatnerian. He might as well be yelling "KHAAAAAAN!"
– In a series with plenty of fine acting, the big find, I think, was Agni Scott as Saddam Hussein's oldest daughter, Raghad. She did a lot with a generally thankless role.
– One of the most frustrating things about the series' constant glossing over politics is that it makes for some seriously incoherent storytelling. U.N. weapons inspectors are dogged professionals in one scene and totally invisible in the next; the C.I.A. (embodied in one single agent, who gets a gloating phone call from Saddam Hussein in one of episode III's wooziest scenes) are clear-thinking sharpies one moment and scheming creeps another. It even creeps into the otherwise excellent end of episode IV; so determined are the filmmakers to show the former leader's impotence that his attempts to rally Iraqis into organized resistance are shown as hopeless dreams of long-gone power. In fact, U.S. forces believe he had much more of a role, even if it was symbolic, in getting the resistance started than was once believed. As probably the biggest political event of the last 10 years, the Iraq War deserves a deeply political treatment on film; it's hard to fault House of Saddam for not being that movie, since it never claimed to be, but every time you think some point is going to be made, you only end up frustrated that it isn't.