Although mad, evil dictators have made some gripping history, they donít always make the best subjects for drama. For one thing, it can extremely difficult for an actor to really get inside the character. And sometimes the evil that men do is simply too vast for the audience to take in. One way to approach the problem is to focus on characters around the dictator, rather than the dictator himself. So it was with Downfall, which gave the audience a vivid look at the inner circle around Hitler, often through the eyes of his secretary. Another movie that used this approach was The Last King of Scotland, which showed the audience Idi Amin, as seen through the eyes of a naive young doctor. Both movies were riveting, even though the dictators at the center of them remained at some level unknowable. In part, this was t because both movies gave us characters about whom we could care, without rooting for two depraved and bloody handed tyrants.
House of Saddam, HBOís four part miniseries about Saddam Hussein, suffers from a lack of characters with whom the audience can identify. Saddam Hussein, ably played by the Israeli actor Yigal Naor, is onscreen most of the time, and very much at the center of the story. His family and lieutenants, though played by a very good supporting cast, are unsympathetic to say the least. So what we are left with isnít so much engaging drama as a partial catalogue of Saddamís crimes and follies. And we never really care about any of these vermin - we just sit and wait for them to get what they deserve.
Naor does an excellent impersonation of Saddam, growling, glowering, and thoroughly malevolent. He has the charisma and physical presence to project serious menace. He can play smart roles, though mostly here he works with a kind of cunning tempered by paranoia. Saddam ruled by terror, Naor looks like a man who could terrorize. Itís a strong performance, but we never really understand much about the character except that Saddam wanted to keep everyone around him in fear, and that he never really understood what could happen to him if he became feared, and hated, by nations far more powerful than his. There are some standout performances among the supporting actors. Makram J Khoury, does a great Tariq Aziz, though he isnít given very much to do. But it is Mounir Margoum, as Qusay Hussein, and especially Philip Arditti as his brother Uday, who come close to stealing the show. Arditti is a delight, sometimes manic, sometime terrifying, sometimes quaking in fear of Saddamís wrath at his latest outrage. He can seem almost like a comic book villain, but you never forget that he was real.
Director Alex Holmes begins the story with Saddamís seizure of power. Itís probably just as well that we donít see Saddam as a young man. Holmes and co-writer Stephen Butchard donít try to psychoanalyze this monster, though at one point they do have Saddam mentioning that his stepfather beat him. Sometimes trying to understand can slop over into trying to excuse. We see some of Saddamís family life, but House of Saddam never becomes the kind of compelling family drama that we got from the Sopranos, though comparisons are hard to avoid. Nor is this the Godfather, where one came to admire Vito Corleone. Holmesí and Butchardís rather episodic screenplay simply presents some of the better known episodes from Saddamís career of evil, and lets the audience make of it what they will.
House of Saddam will air in four parts. Parts one and two ran Sunday night, and carried us through the end of the Kuwait war. The other two parts will air this coming Sunday, and all four parts will be repeated. Consult local listings. Next weekís concluding episodes will deal with the years of sanctions, the 2003 war, and Saddamís eventual capture.
One thing that Holmes manages to do is capture the tragic absurdity of Americaís Iraq policy. Holmes makes it clear that Saddam was dangerous just to be near, even for his longest serving and most trusted henchmen. The thugs and hardened killers that made up his inner circle were terrified every moment they were in his presence, to the point that few dared to tell him the truth about the depth of trouble he had gotten himself into, and those who did might not live to tell about it. Part two ends in 1991, with Saddam realizing that the Americans are not going all the way to Baghdad, shaking his fist at an American plane, and holding a leaflet urging the Iraqi people to dare what America did not, and overthrow him. Itís the showís best moment so far, startling, grotesque, and utterly ridiculous.