The Dictator's Son: A Familiar Figure Brought to Life by Dominic Cooper

International cast recreates the opulent years of a decadent regime

28 July, 2011 | Levantine Review | Reviewed by Jordan Elgrably

 Click image to watch trailer.

Click image to watch trailer.

The international independent feature The Devil's Double comes off as a sort of glossy Middle Eastern gangster epic, replete with blazing guns and psychotic outbursts. The film offers a highly stylized yet emotional experience of the years when Saddam Hussein's evil empire was characterized by the long Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and the dastardly exploits of his spoiled and dangerous son Uday. It is without doubt one of the first feature films to deal with doppleganger identity themes set in the Middle East. Both Uday and Saddam have their look-alikes in this narrative, but the story focuses on the supposed real-life exploits of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi army lieutenant who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Uday and becomes his fiday (body double or "bullet catcher").

The Devil's Double opens with grainy documentary footage of the war between Iraq and Iran. New Zealand director Lee Tamahori—whose magnum opus is considered to be the 1994 feature Once Were Warriors—seems to want to instill some cinema verité before he dazzles the viewer with the opulence of late 1980s and early ‘90s Baghdad and the excesses of Iraq's ruling elite. The historical footage lends the subject the gravitas it requires, for otherwise what you have is a long narrative of utter depravity—why, after all, should we care about Uday Hussein, or relive some of his notorious horrors, from kidnapping teenage girls on the streets of Baghdad to gutting a surly general at a drunken party?

Sometime in the latter ‘80s, Latif is snatched from the scene of battle by two of Uday's closest henchman, who without explanation deliver him to a large palace. There yet another lackey named Munem (Raad Rawi) politely explains that he now belongs to Uday Hussein and he will never be able to go home again—he cannot even call his family (the single attempt he makes to steal away to see them is met with swift punishment). He will then undergo a number of operations and adjustments in order to fool as many Iraqis as possible. One thing that never changes about Latif is his muted personality; he's in there somewhere, but who is he, really?

 Uday and his double, Latif

Uday and his double, Latif

British actor Dominic Cooper aquits himself well in his first lead performance as both Uday and Latif. In fact he's something of a revelation—if you don't mind transposing a European into the role of an Iraqi. The other non-Arab cast member of note is Gallic star Ludivine Sagnier, whom we last saw in the French gangster flick Mesrine and who plays Sarrab, the notorious concubine to Uday and forbidden love interest to Latif. But much of this interesting cast is made up of Middle Eastern character actors from Turkey, Morocco, Bahrain, Iran and even Iraq. Almost all of the film takes place in English, with Arabic used in some TV and radio broadcasts and signage. Speaking with a slight Arabic accent, Cooper manages to play Uday and Latif with enough shades of difference for you to believe you're watching two different people. As Uday he is frenetic when not utterly despotic; but as Latif he seems centered, as if some hidden force is holding him together in the middle of this madness.

The danger of another film about the Middle East made by someone from a western culture is that Arabs could be made to look backward, bloodthirsty or as if we are all religious fanatics. In The Devil's Double, though, Iraqis are mostly a strong, resilient people who somehow find ways to bear up under Saddam's self-destructive regime. Lest you think you're watching a biopic, however, Tamahori has insisted that his version of events does not attempt to adhere to the known facts, so it is not based on any of the three books Latif Yahia published about his experiences (the first being I Was Saddam's Son in 1997). Yahia did work as a consultant on location in Malta, and as a result the film brims with authentic detail, including a Baghdad outdoor market that becomes the scene of an assassination attempt on the life of Saddam's number-one son.

Explaining his interest in taking on this directing project, Tamahori told a Wall Street Journal reporter, "I've always been perversely fascinated by the rotten sons of dictators. Now you have Gaddafi and his ragtag brood in Libya. They always seem to breed these contemptuous children. They have unlimited funds and they can literally get away with murder."<

As I watched The Devil's Double I asked myself what this film could potentially teach us about history, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, or the ways in which Orientalism continues to problematize Arabs in the west—from Islamophobia to the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood. Ultimately it is an entertainment that offers a portrait of an Arab autocracy that has become all too familiar, from Syria to Libya.