No one should ever forget the effects of past tyranny. Too much power in the hands of too few is dangerous anyway, but when that power is in the hands of sociopathic or psychopathic leaders, large numbers of people will suffer terribly. So it was for over three decades in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, like so many sinister men with a hunger for power, took advantage of timing, positioning, and fear to consolidate his dictatorial rule. Saddam borrowed a page out of Hitler’s book. He was good at dividing his enemies, creating paranoia about internal or external threats that may or may not have existed, and keeping people off kilter by showing random acts of benevolence and violence in an arbitrary fashion. Whew! Dictators have so many heads to juggle at the same time!
Saddam’s progeny inherited his genetic dysfunction or at least were bred to eschew empathy and humane leadership. His eldest son, Uday Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, took his father’s charm and turned it up several notches, fueled it with cocaine, sexual aggression, and way too much money. Whereas Saddam’s methods seemed to employ violence as a means to secure power, Uday just seemed to enjoy it regardless of the motive.
Within an oppressed society there are those whose outrage will not tolerate injustice and in spite of the possibility of retribution, they will fight for the good cause. So it was not uncommon that the Husseins found themselves at risk for assassination. A standard practice by dictators is to use body doubles to minimize the risk of a successful operation. Saddam had his doubles and as Uday grew into a big shit of a man, he too inherited the need for a stand-in.
Enter Latif Yahia, a boyhood schoolmate of Uday’s. He looked remarkably similar to Uday and was tapped, against his wishes, to fill the role of the double. Latif served as the nutcase’s public distraction for several years before a falling out between the men led to Latif running for his life. Eventually, Uday went tits up and Latif’s story became public.
Well, that’s the story anyway. Like so many outrageous biographical stories, there’s always the possibility of deceit or at least embellishment. Biographical dramas, after all, play ambiguously in the real world and make-pretend land. There are several sources that dispute Latif’s claim. But for the sake of this post, let’s assume that the facts are essentially there and that The Devil’s Double is mostly accurate.
The Good: If you liked Scarface, chances are you’ll like this movie. The bombastic lifestyles of the rich and famous with their excesses of drugs, women, guns, cars, and money have a certain pornographic appeal. People loath the wealthily corrupt but are voyeuristically fascinated by them. The Devil’s Double paints the picture of an obscenely charasmatic pyschopathic who held everyone around him in terror while he went about his business of self-indulgence.
Dominic Cooper looked close enough to Uday to pull it off, especially after the gap-toothed overbite was inserted. He did a convincing job of playing both the Uday and Latif roles concurrently. Dominic made us believe he was two separate people.
The other players were minor backdrops except for Ludivine Sagnier as Uday’s lust interest, Sarrab. She plays a sexually charged sympathetic character in the film.
What’s interesting in biopics is when real world events course into the story. All of the major events depicted in the film occurred, even if they were tweaked liberally. Uday did slaughter Saddam’s food taster Kamel Hana Gegeo (purportedly because Saddam met his second wife through Kamel, which enraged Uday because it insulted his mother), Uday did go near the front lines to rally the troops during the Iraq-Iran war, Uday did suffer grievous injuries in an assassination attempt, Uday did torture players of the Iraqi soccer team when they lost games, and Uday did make a habit of trolling for young girls.
It isn’t quite as clear if Latif’s story of individual events were historical, like the time another man’s bride killed herself after being raped by Uday on her wedding day or Uday’s tryst with a transgender person. It’s probably only speculative that Uday had a quasi-incestuous relationship with his mother or that Sarrab was even a real person. We also don’t know if Latif actually slit his wrists while arguing with Uday. But, it all makes fantastic storytelling!
The Bad: OK, the good is also the bad. The risk a biopic drama takes is that if it purports itself to be a story “based on actual events” it has opened the door to speculation. Taken as a story in and of itself, The Devil’s Double is engaging. But with the noted parenthetical claim, it does stand to suffer because skepticism is inevitable for those viewers that value authenticity. Again, we don’t know if Latif’s claims are primarily truthful, but we have to wonder.
The film isn’t profound. It doesn’t really leave you with any sort of moral judgement and Lee Tamahori (director) doesn’t flower up the movie with a bunch of artistic elements. Even the violence is somewhat limited given the scope of the malevolence that Uday purportedly employed (don’t get me wrong, though — this movie is plenty violent). The primary intention is to mirror a madman with his anti-doppelgänger, and depict the counterfeit man’s struggle to maintain his identity and humanity.
The Ugly: The box office. While the budget was small (about $19 million), the take at the theaters was an abysmal $1.3 million. It’s unfortunate that concurrent films like Conan the Barbarian or Cowboys and Aliens got a massive marketing and media budget and thereby crowded out opportunities for small films like The Devil’s Double. Well, here’s hoping it gets some its money back in sales and rentals. If you have Netflix, go put it into your queue. It’s not the best film in its genre (I’m calling it a “historical thriller” because that’s so original, right?), but it’s worth far more than the box office reflects.
Our take on things: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Other pictures from The Devil’s Double