A new film cap­tu­res Uday Hus­sein and the regime he served in all their hor­ror.

Hol­ly­wood has finally released a feature film that takes place in Iraq but isn’t about the Iraq War. Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double tells the story of Latif Yahia, a young Iraqi offi­cer from a pri­vi­leged family who is for­ced to become the body double of Sad­dam Hussein’s psycho­pat­hic son Uday. The Iran-Iraq war is raging when the story beg­ins, and Iraq’s inva­sion of Kuwait takes place mid­way through, but these con­flicts are in the back­ground, off screen. The film, based on a book writ­ten by the real-life Latif with the help of Karl Wendl, is not about war but about the depra­vity of the palace.

Uday Hus­sein pushes drug abuse, sex, and impul­sive vio­lence to their extre­mes. He doesn’t just blow cocaine up his nose; he snorts it off the tip of a dag­ger. He likes to kill people when he gets drunk and even disem­bowels one of his father’s best fri­ends at a party. We see him prow­ling the stre­ets of Bag­h­dad in his sports car and abduc­ting young girls in school uniforms—including one still wea­ring braces—and taking them back to his bedroom to drug and rape them. He rapes anot­her woman on her wed­ding day while she is wea­ring her wed­ding dress; a few min­utes later, he is annoyed when she throws her­self off a bal­cony. The man is pure id, scof­fing at the Mus­lim say­ing “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and insis­ting that God never gave him any­thing. “Eve­rything I want, I just take for myself,” he says. He sure does. “You should have been kil­led at birth,” his furious fat­her says, hol­ding him down and aiming a long cur­ved sword at his geni­tals. You ought to know you’ve gone off the rails when Sad­dam Hus­sein is appal­led by your beha­vior.

Poor Latif Yahia. Not only is he for­ced to become Uday’s body double; he must also effec­tively erase his iden­tity and become Uday. The offi­cial story is that he was kil­led on the front lines in the war against Iran. Even his family belie­ves this for a while. He under­goes plas­tic sur­gery so that he’ll look even more like Uday than he alre­ady does, and he’s expec­ted to adopt Uday’s facial expres­sions, man­ne­risms, and tones of voice. Uday even wants him to kill, and Latif gets him­self into serious trouble when he refu­ses. Pre­sumably the only rea­son that Uday doesn’t kill Latif is that Uday despe­ra­tely needs him to sur­vive. He also seems to love Latif in a twisted sort of way—at least when he’s not bea­ting and tor­turing him. Latif is seriously inju­red in an assas­si­na­tion attempt when the would-be kil­ler mis­ta­kes him for the dictator’s son. (Of course, that’s the whole point of having a double in a place like Iraq.) The real-life Latif esca­ped from Iraq in the 1990s and spent years in the­rapy to soothe the emo­tio­nal trauma of wit­nessing so much rape, mur­der, tor­ture, and may­hem at the hands of the bru­tal man he had no choice but to serve. To this day, he says, he can’t fall asleep until five or six in the mor­ning.

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Domi­nic Cooper bril­li­antly plays both Uday and Latif. Despite the fact that the cha­rac­ters look the same, I never had any doubt which cha­rac­ter was on screen; Cooper’s subtle shifts in body lan­guage and facial expression—a wild or soft look in the eyes, for instance—made it abun­dantly clear which role he was play­ing at every moment.

I don’t want to give any­thing away, but I can say at least that the film even­tually departs from what took place in the real world to tack on an entirely fic­tio­nal (though emo­tio­nally satis­fy­ing) ending. The wri­ters pre­sumably thought the depar­ture made for a bet­ter story. Despite the modi­fi­ca­tion, the film is well worth see­ing for its vivid, accu­rate depic­tion of the vicious­ness of Uday Hus­sein and of the filthy regime he was born into.

The Devil’s Double is also bles­sedly free of even the tiniest anti-Ame­ri­can jab, somet­hing that can be said of few feature films Hol­ly­wood has pro­du­ced that take place in Iraq. (The only others worth watch­ing are Three Kings and The Hurt Locker.) It would be a mis­take, how­ever, to assume that the film was made to jus­tify the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq by the Ame­ri­can-led coalition. Latif doesn’t seem to be a fan of the war him­self, for one thing. And though Uday Hus­sein did meet his end at the hands of Ame­ri­can sol­di­ers in Mosul in 2003, The Devil’s Double isn’t about the Uni­ted Sta­tes, even peri­phe­rally. Latif’s book was writ­ten before the inva­sion, and hardly anyone knew it existed until after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. So few copies of the first edition were pub­lis­hed that if you want to buy one from Ama­zon, you’ll have to pay $1,000, as of this wri­ting. The most expen­sive copy costs over $100,000.

A story about Iraq writ­ten by an Iraqi is refres­hing. Events in that coun­try are far too often ana­ly­zed as though the Uni­ted Sta­tes were always at their cen­ter. Even during the darkest days of the insur­gency, between 2004 and 2006, far more Iraqis were inju­red and kil­led by other Iraqis than by Ame­ri­can for­ces. And many more Iraqis were kil­led and trau­ma­tized during the period in which The Devil’s Double takes place than after the Ame­ri­can-led inva­sion.

If you’re inclined to view this film as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the war in 2003, you’ll have a case. At least the inva­sion pre­vented Uday from ruling the coun­try even more viciously than his fat­her did. But the genre that the movie truly belongs to is Tota­li­ta­rian Stu­dies. If abso­lute power cor­rupts abso­lutely, which it did in the case of Sad­dam Hus­sein, what hap­pens when a boy is raised with abso­lute power before he has a chance to mature? The Devil’s Double answers that ques­tion with the force of a punch to the sto­mach.

Michael J. Totten is a con­tri­bu­ting edi­tor of City Jour­nal and aut­hor of The Road to Fatima Gate and In the Wake of the Surge. Visit his blog at www.michaeltotten.com.

Artik­ke­len sto opp­rin­ne­lig i City Jour­nal: The Id of Meso­po­ta­mia19 August 2011

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