How do you solve a problem like Saddam? This is not a tardy question about U.N. sanctions or Kurdish uprisings but the chief puzzle that confronted the creators of House of Saddam (HBO, debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) as they assembled a four-hour miniseries about the Iraqi tyrant and his inner circle. Despots are never terribly “relatable,” as they say in pitch meetings; Saddam Hussein is rather too recently dead to be approached with cool historical perspective, and we all know how this one ends. The constraints of straight docudrama would have gotten the producers nowhere; instead, they decided to take their raw material—two Gulf Wars, much palace intrigue, and the practice of Machiavellian political science—and shape it into a gangster film.
When House of Saddam aired on the BBC last summer, the Independent’s Thomas Sutcliffe tagged it as “The Sopranos with Scud missiles,” which is a good start. In fact, its first chapter—an hourlong summary of Saddam’s seizing of power in 1979 and the early years of the Iran-Iraq War—is primarily devoted to riffing on and ripping off moments from the pop-culture canon of organized crime. The approach recasts the villain of history as a familiar kind of anti-hero so that we’ll stick around to see his comeuppance, and it also jibes with Saddam’s self-conception: Mark Bowden’s classic Atlantic story on Saddam notes that The Godfather was the man’s favorite film, next to The Old Man and the Sea. Watching House of Saddam, I started counting nods tothe Coppola seriesupon noting the tan-and-gold tones of the cinematography and quit counting after a trapped-in-a-revolving-door murder scene.
Saddam is fixated on his mother in a way that recalls James Cagney in White Heat. His own son Uday—the psychopathic one whose pastimes included soccer and torture and, especially, torturing soccer players—is written as an overheated hybrid of Sonny Corleone and Tony Montana (though actor Philip Ardetti plays him with a lizardly kind of degenerate charisma that is his alone). Saddam’s cousin and military adviser Ali Hassan Al-Majid—you can call him Chemical Ali—is a kind of Joe Pesci character, a crude imp who chuckles at his own menacing wisecracks. These men, along with other lieutenants, consiglieri, and foot soldiers, enact a tale about loyalty, power plays, and blood while the womenfolk do womanly things, the dictator’s girlfriend glittering like a goomah as his brittle wife frets. The only thing missing is a long tracking shot of Saddam strutting into Radwaniyah Palace by way of the kitchen, deigning to nod at his minions.
In the lead role, actor Igal Naor does an admirable job of hurdling the two big obstacles his part presents. First, he needs only 30 or 40 minutes of screen time to press the memory of cinema’s foremost fictional Saddam—the figure from Hot Shots! Part Deux—to the back of the mind. Second, resisting the temptation to amp up the monstrosity, he underplays things, restraining himself from twirling a moustache that recalls both Joseph Stalin’s and Thomas Friedman’s. His Saddam is guilty of hubris, of believing his own propaganda, of murder many times over, but he’s still presented on a human scale. Even when Saddam’s phlebotomist makes a house call so that Saddam can continue his project of transcribing the Quran in his own blood, he doesn’t look subnormally loony. Naor is not often called upon to explore the character’s psychological depths explicitly, which is just as well, as the series goes wobbly whenever the script heads in that direction. This Saddam speaks too often and too tremulously of being smacked around by his stepfather and caresses the barrel of a handgun in a way that makes me blush. No, the production’s appeal is all on the surfaces—in a moment where a killer’s image is reflected in a fresh pool of blood, say, or a megalomaniac catches his own eye in the mirror.