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Sundance Review: “The Devil’s Double” Delivers the Horror of Uday Hussein

Uday Hussein is a villain of epic, operatic proportions, and Dominic Cooper – in his first leading role of consequence – makes him strangely compelling

How much do we want to know about the world that ended with the hated war in Iraq?

Uday Saddam Hussein, older son of the Iraqi dictator, was so grotesque a character that when fictionalized in “The Devil’s Double,” the viewer is tempted to imagine that liberties were taken.

But, no. Uday really was that man: the schoolgirls snatched off the street and raped; the brides taken in their gowns for a night of his pleasure; the torture of athletes when they lost – or when they won if they stole too much of the national spotlight. The drugs. The sex. The hanging upside down of innocent people for peceived slights.

He is a villain of epic, operatic proportions, and Dominic Cooper – in his first leading role of consequence – makes Uday a strangely compelling, sometimes mesmerizing and consistently entertaining monster.

The story of Uday is told through the eyes of a man forced to bear witness to this regime-sanctioned psychotic, Latif Ahmed, who became Uday’s body double.

Cooper ably plays both roles – the former, who charges through each scene on the verge of hysteria and/or violence. And the other, a quiet observer who seethes through the depravities he must silently accept, lending every scene an underpinning of morality. (Resistance would have meant death to his family, torture for him.)

Before the screening began I ran into an agent who described it a “Three Kings meets Scarface meets Goodfellas.”

That about hits it. Back in 2003, on the day that Uday and his younger brother Qusay were murdered, I wrote an essay about the stories that swept through Baghdad about them, having recently returned from a reporting stint in Iraq. (It’s still posted here.)

At the time I wrote: “Doesn’t anyone see a television movie in this?”

Director Lee Tamahori did see a movie in it; and some critics and buyers who saw the film felt that it played too much like television – melodramatic and unidimensional.

But on second glance, the story gives us a moral center in Latif and a context for thinking about the consequences of our foreign policy – not just the 2003 invasion, but the choice not to topple Saddam back in 1990, and our support of that regime through the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Those decisions helped create this monster. Uday and his brother were finally hunted down and shot. But it took until 2003, and the terror they wrought on their own people was no small price for the residents of this ancient land.

As Tamahori said in the q&a after the premiere screening this weekend, “There’s not much of a message here other than: Despots have children that run out of control and we should put them up against the wall and shoot them.”

Count on this one getting bought, and appearing in theaters some time this year.