Film review: “The Devil's Double”

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Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor at HNN.

There has been a great fanfare surrounding the cinematic release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “the anti-Bond movie par excellence,” according to the Independent. The 127-minute film, says the Daily Record, is a “slow-brewing, elegant retelling of John Le Carré’s Cold War novel.” The Guardian even goes as far as to suggest that Tomas Alfredson’s work is “the film to beat at [the Venice] festival.” Yet “things aren’t always what they seem,” as Toby Easterhase says to George Smiley, the main protagonist. While it features the “best British line-up” of the year, talk of “damn fine acting” (Total Film), an “utterly absorbing” storyline (Empire) and “engrossing thriller” (Telegraph) reminds this cinemagoer more of The Devil’s Double.

I say this not because Lee Tamarhori’s flick about a drug-fueled, diabolically-unhinged dictator’s son and his “fiday” contains a riveting double performance by Dominic Cooper. Nor do I for the reason that the director has produced an absorbing thriller about (and based on the memoir by) lookalike army lieutenant, Latif Yahia, who is summoned to Baghdad near the end of the Iran-Iraq War and forcibly recruited to serve the role of body-double for Uday Hussein. But rather since viewers receive a valuable history lesson of what was, in effect, Tikriti Iraq (much like how Arabia became Saudi Arabia under Abdul-Aziz bin Saud).

Granted, the ending – which comes around thirty minutes too late – could be said to indulge in a radical historical rewrite with the one-time slave taking revenge on his former master. (While Uday was confined to a wheelchair after a gunman fired eight bullets into him at point-blank range, the 1996 assassination attempt was attributed to a group calling itself al-Nahdah or “the awakening” – a cabal of Iraqi intellectuals that rose up in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.) The suggestion that Uday’s staff (including Raad Rawi as his security chief) might not have his best interests at heart is also fanciful. While the less said about Michael Thomas’ script, especially with regard to not portraying Papa Hussein in an unfavourable light, the better.

Saddam was, to be sure, his son’s main influence notwithstanding his few brief appearances to the contrary. You need only read the book Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, for instance, to see that Uday learned the art of rape and murder from his father: “We once came upon Saddam Hussein’s men in black Mercedes limousines chasing two young women,” author Kanan Makiya writes. “They hit them and drove over the girls a few times. Then they dragged the bodies to the Tigris River. When Uday asked the men what was going on he grin[ned] and [said], ‘Whores of my father’.”

Despite the aforementioned, however, and what Latif says about the movie being only “20%” truthful, incidents such as Uday raping Miss Baghdad and then ordering Latif to kill her father and a newlywed jumping to her death after she was abducted and defiled are accurate. So, too, is the one surrounding his killing of his father’s favourite bodyguard and food taster in 1988; as is the one involving Latif’s convoy getting ambushed during the rebellion when visiting troops fighting rebels in Basra. Thomas, meanwhile, deserves particular praise for the way Uday’s outlandish and murderous behaviour becomes a microcosm of the Husseins’ reign of terror more generally. The Baathist state systematically invaded its citizens’ privacy, let us not forget, using rape rooms and lashings to breed fear among Iraqis and to maintain its stranglehold over the populace. 

For me at least, though, it is the insight offered into how Latif kept the regime ticking over by making public appearances as Uday when Saddam’s heir needed to appear leader-like which is invaluable. (He is filmed in Kuwait, for example, keeping morale up as Uday watches on, admiring “his” performance on TV.) Talking of which, those who question the intelligence – justifiably, many would say – which undergirded the 2003 war and the act of regime change should bear in mind who would have become the sixth president of Iraq. Thankfully, Cooper saves this reviewer from delving into the hotly-contested world of counterfactual history by reminding us about “the rumor before the war that removing Saddam was a dangerous thing because this guy who was his son was even more dangerous. And I remember being scared by that as a youngster,” Cooper adds, “[g]enuinely scared! ‘Someone worse than Saddam?’.”

Cooper had every reason to be terrified since, according to a report in The Times, Uday conspired to assassinate the leader of the Iraqi opposition on the streets of London just three years before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched; the aborted April 2000 plot included an elite recruit in the Fedayeen paramilitary group killing Ahmed Chalabi, the figurehead of the Iraqi National Congress. Uday was “undoubtedly the wealthiest man in Iraq”, according to Con Coughlin, whose fortune came from reselling humanitarian aid allocated by the United Nations on the black market as well as from intensifying Iraq’s oil-smuggling operation with the mullahs in neighbouring Iran. But it was his links with al-Qaeda, Coughlin writes in Saddam: The Secret Life, which was the most disturbing. “In April 1998,” the Telegraph's executive foreign editor informs us, “bin Laden … sent a delegation of his al-Qaeda fighters to attend [Uday’s] birthday celebrations [who, in turn,] responded to this gracious gesture by agreeing to train a number of … recruits in Iraq.”

Even if not “everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” as commentator Charles Krauthammer posits in his Washington Post op-ed, “From Baghdad to Benghazi,” or, as Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens writes, “(Almost) … Neocon[…] Now,” we should all be grateful – the devil’s double included despite not having his day in court – for Bush ridding the world of Saddam and Uday, nothing but double trouble and a right pair of devils. With this in mind, cinemagoers can sit back and enjoy what could – indeed should – pip Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. 

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