The Devil’s Double tells the story of Latif Yahia, the handpicked body double of the late Uday. And quite a story it is – provided you have the stomach for it.
British actor Dominic Cooper does double duty in the film, playing both ‘Uday’ and ‘Latif.’ It is a notable achievement for the relatively unknown actor, most recently seen playing the military weapons innovator ‘Howard Stark’ in this year’s Marvel Comics blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger.
The film wisely opens with news reel images of Saddam Hussein’s military conflicts: tanks invading, fighter jets soaring, bombs flying, and the resulting carnage of war. These images provide some historical context to Iraq – Baghdad in particular – in the early 1990s.
Next we see two gold Mercedes sedans slicing through the desert en route to Baghdad. From one of the luxury sleds emerges ‘Latif Yahia,’ a childhood ‘chum’ of Uday Hussein. Once inside, he immediately makes eyes with a scantily clad concubine, ‘Sarrab,’ exiting ‘Uday’s’ chambers. It’s a brief moment of foreshadowing that gave me optimism of what might be one of the film’s themes – the disgusted realization that an average Iraqi citizen (or soldier in this case) would have when actually confronted with the hypocritical and hedonistic decadence of the nation’s ruling family.
Once ‘Latif’ comes face to face with ‘Uday,’ the proposition is laid before him: End his life as he knows it and become the full-time doppelgänger for the son of Iraq’s iron fisted President. It is a huge, life-changing decision. He is given 10 minutes to make it.
After a predictable beat down, he takes the gig – and all the lavish perks that go with it.
We see sprawling swimming pools surrounded by a harem of bathing beauties, walk in closets with “hand-made” shoes, diamond studded watches, and tailor-made suits (“Armani, of course.”). All for the taking. But only if ‘Uday’ grants permission. And don’t, by any means, dare to even talk to a woman whom ‘Uday’ has chosen as his own.
So we know where that’s going, right?
There are night club scenes that seem lifted right out of Scarface (1983), and the few times we see Saddam Hussein interact with his son he comes off as more of an Iraqi ‘Don Corleone’ than the egomaniacal mass murderer we all knew he was.
The script, based on Yahia’s autobiography, tells us repeatedly that ‘Uday’ needs ‘Latif’ – for security purposes we understand the value of their relationship – but the deeper connection that is implied is never fully realized, so much of the tension comes off as contrived rather than psychologically developed.
We do see quick CNN glimpses of President George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and General Norman Schwartzkopf to remind us of the American military intervention that resulted from Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
The love story between ‘Latif’ and ‘Uday’s’ number one squeeze (played by Ludivine Sagnier) also misses its mark. Not only because of her unmistakable resemblance to Lady Gaga, but she just doesn’t light up the screen the way you would expect. By contrast, I can’t imagine Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) working nearly as well as it did were it not for the electric smile and beauty of Freida Pinto.
Cooper’s performance, both of them, are fine and may even garner him an Oscar nomination. But at times it felt more like a parlor trick than a genuine contrast, and his British accent crept in far too often while portraying ‘Latif’ for me to forgive.
But what disappointed me most about The Devil’s Double was the film’s reluctance to make a larger indictment of the misogynistic Arab culture that percolated under the ruthless dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, who made me squirm nearly two decades ago with his Once Were Warriors, is a capable filmmaker and The Devil’s Double is an engaging film, albeit graphically violent and at times gratuitously sexually explicit.
While I struggled with much of Once Were Warriors (1994) brutal content, I admired greatly Tamahori’s inspection of the Maori way of life and how it fosters societal acceptance of domestic violence and alcoholism.
No such inspection here, however.
Repeatedly we are fed lines like “you are a good man doing a bad job” and “soon this will all be over.” The Iraqi torture machine that functioned under Saddam Hussein’s rule may have been capitalized on by the evil ‘Uday’s’ cravings, but it was policy, not the perversion of a spoiled child.
What we are left with is pretty much what we already knew about Uday Hussein. That he was a viciously sadistic sex-crazed maniac who wielded his inherited power over his subjects with a malice that is hard to comprehend. But I think we can all agree that apple did not fall far from the tree.
Final note: On July 22, 2003, Task Force 20, aided by troops of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, had a showdown with Uday and his brother Qusay in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Nearly 200 American troops surrounded the house, reinforced by OH-58 Kiowa Helicopters and an A-10 “Warthog.” A gunfight ensued and, after four hours of battle, the Hussein brothers, along with Qusay’s 14-year-old son Mustapha, were killed.