The Devil’s Double is sensationalism taken to appalling heights. Rather than adapt the true story Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia into a compelling historical drama, director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas have instead made a lurid action thriller, one that reduces documented human atrocities to the level of violent entertainment. This is a profoundly wrong approach. The real Uday Hussein was by all accounts a psychopath, his alleged crimes ranging from the imprisonment and torture of poor-performing Iraqi athletes, shooting and killing an army officer that didn’t salute him, and kidnapping and raping young women, who in some instances would end up murdered. Downplaying this for the sake of escapism is downright insulting. How dare they end the film with a title card saying, “The rest is history”?
It’s adapted from Yahia’s own memoir, in which he documented how he was forced by Hussein to become his fiday, or body double, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War. This happened in 1987, when Yahia was only twenty-three years old. As fate would have it, he had been Hussein’s classmate at the age of fifteen, and it was reportedly noted how similar the two looked. While serving in the military in Baghdad, his unit received a dispatch ordering him to report to the Presidential Palace, where he was informed, in no uncertain terms, that he would pose as Hussein during dangerous public appearances. He initially refused, which allegedly resulted in him being placed in solitary confinement – and in him being tortured, if I’m to believe what the film tells me. He eventually relented and was then trained for six months to take on the mannerisms of Hussein. He was also surgically altered and given a false set of teeth.
In the film, both Yahia and Hussein are played by Dominic Cooper. His take on Yahia is about as decent as it can possibly be given the material, although it falls apart rather quickly during the final scenes, which devolve to a second-rate spy thriller before ending on a note of unnecessary brutality. His take on Hussein, on the other hand, is despicable. This is a tricky one to explain, since the real Hussein was himself quite despicable. It’s a matter of context; if you’re going to depict the evil exploits of a once living madman, you must go about it with some degree of respect, not only to the victims but also to history itself. In fictionalizing Hussein, The Devil’s Double shows no reverence for anyone living or dead. He’s made into a buffoonish caricature, and somehow, he remains that way even while raping, murdering, and torturing.
There are many scenes in which he parties. We see him strutting around in clubs, dancing provocatively with loose women, smoking cigars, taking drugs, and generally behaving like an addict on overdrive. When he isn’t partying, he imposes his will on others with the same tact of a child having a temper tantrum. His reputation with prostitutes and young girls may account for his fixation on his penis; early scenes have him boasting in the most colorful of ways, and in one particular instance, he even got to compare himself to Yahia. We also see Hussein as a whiny brat who can’t win the approval of his infamous father, Saddam (Philip Quast), who clearly favored his younger son, Qusay. It’s said that in real life, Uday considered his father’s second marriage an insult to his mother. The film depicts this disapproval in a grotesque scene where he lies in bed with his mother, cuddling against her and resting his head on her chest.
A ridiculous subplot involves Yahia forming a bond with Hussein’s mistress, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), who dresses like a Tokyo Pop reject and is given dialogue usually reserved for seductive Bond girls. As their feelings for one another grow deeper, they inch ever closer to an inevitable chase, which, in the tradition of spy movies, is on an international scale. Their final scene involves a revelation that would typically be used in a second rate tale of intrigue. So now the film is both reprehensible and predictable. There is nothing about Sarrab that’s even remotely plausible; she seems to have been slipped into the screenplay out of necessity for the male lead to be paired with a sexy sidekick.
I’ll be the first to admit that movie violence can be fun. I do not believe, however, that violent acts of history should be downgraded for the sake of giving audiences a cheap thrill. That kind of thing is an insult to those that lived through them and to the memory of those that didn’t. Watching The Devil’s Double, my mind drifted to films such as Schindler’s List, Munich, and Johnny Mad Dog. Steven Spielberg and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire took their respective subject matters seriously, thank God. But what if they hadn’t? What if they had made the same spectacularly bad decisions made by Lee Tamahori, who clearly does not see the inherent solemnity of war and death? I should hope no one would have stood for them. If you appreciate human history and the value of life, you will not stand for this reprehensible excuse of a movie.
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