HBO Captures the Grimly Perverse 'House of Saddam'

Igal Naor, right, as Saddam Hussein and Said Taghmaoui as his half brother Barzan Ibrahim.
Igal Naor, right, as Saddam Hussein and Said Taghmaoui as his half brother Barzan Ibrahim. (By Alan Keohane -- Hbo)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Just after a daring bunny hunt in the desert, a heavily armed Saddam Hussein tells his son: "We are lucky men. We have a land to die for." Maybe so, but as Hussein solidifies his power and takes firm control of his supposedly beloved Iraq, it's always other people who do the dying. It's also mostly others who do the killing, dispatched by Hussein to do his bidding in that ultimate of war-racked regions, the mad Mideast.

The prospect of spending four more hours with Saddam Hussein, after all the time accorded him on newscasts and in documentaries about his life, will strike very few folks as a treat. But HBO's "House of Saddam," properly grim and even horrific, earns its time on the air. The four-part miniseries, co-produced with the BBC, airs in two blocks, the first two hours tomorrow night, the concluding pair a week later on Dec. 14.

The drama is to be commended for how it avoids becoming a preachment in which Hussein represents evil and the West stands for goodness. History is never that simple, although the occasional emergence of dictators can make it play that way. Even in the early scenes of Hussein's rising to dominance, he speaks lovingly and longingly of "power" and the godlike feelings it can instill. He was shameless in his love of power and in his abuse of it, arrogant to such an extreme that he declares at one point, "A law is anything I write on a piece of paper."

Igal Naor, an appropriately burly Israeli actor, deftly handles the daunting task of turning a historical figure into a credible human being. The dilemma for the dramatizers is obvious: They don't want to make Hussein a one-dimensional, comic-strip villain who seethes, growls and twirls his mustache (Hussein's thick mustache was not very twirlable anyway).

On the other hand, if too much attention is lavished on "understanding" a demonic persona -- if he's portrayed as just a regular Joe with character flaws or psychological problems -- there is the risk of excusing even his foulest deeds, of writing them off as pesky human foibles, of giving him, in essence, a Get Out of Jail Free card.

It's naive, we tell our sophisticated selves, to bandy about such words as "evil"; the concept is too simplistic. But when considering the history of a dictator who ordered the extermination of thousands of Kurds, his country's own people; or who, on a more intimate level, had his longtime best friend executed partly to demonstrate "strength," isn't the word "evil" hard to avoid? The filmmakers don't "explain" Hussein as some frustrated patriarch with a fatal flaw that forced him to wreak torture and death on anyone he considered an enemy; what we behold is just a vicious thug who paints himself into corners from which only wanton violence can free him.

Those enemies, many real and many imaginary, multiply in proportion to Hussein's increasing power and influence. "I know a traitor before he knows himself," he says confidently. His administration is more like a crime family than a political operation, so it's fitting that "House of Saddam" includes a sequence that seems straight out of "The Godfather": A party goes on outdoors while inside, Hussein and other men confer and conspire by very dim light, with pauses to praise the incipient president and his slate of purported social reforms.

No sooner does Hussein seize those irresistible reins of power than an assassination plot is discovered. More than the usual suspects are rounded up; dissenters are considered traitors. A trial conducted for public consumption is intercut with Hussein's actual system of justice, a man being tortured mercilessly yet still refusing to confess to whatever crimes he's charged with. Hypocrisy is the norm: Attending the funeral of the longtime friend he ordered killed, Hussein says, "I loved him like a brother."

Iraqi schoolchildren sing his praises in their classrooms: "Oh, beloved! You love all the people and the people love you." Another rabble-rousing ditty burbles out of television sets: "If he says 'build,' then get ready! . . . He orders, and we oblige!" The film suggests, however faintly, that Hussein might actually have brought greatly needed progress to Iraq if only he hadn't devoted so much energy to sniffing out enemies and then exterminating them. Power doesn't corrupt him, exactly; he was already corrupt. Power is his enabler.

As indicated by the title, the film details the misdeeds and political perversity of Hussein's entire family, including a mother not dissimilar to the mean old mob matriarch played by Nancy Marchand in "The Sopranos," and Hussein's squirrelly, degenerate son Uday, who is depicted here as an insatiable rapist and gluttonous power-monger. There is plenty of blame to go around. The United States, and in particular the CIA, are shown as having squandered opportunities to stop Hussein; one of Hussein's highest-ranking generals turns on him and escapes to the West, but the CIA simply casts the man to the jackals when they find his inside information no longer useful.

The film has a great deal of territory to cover, including Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and his long delayed fall from power -- a fall that ended in a hole in the ground where he hid with some of his ill-gotten cash. In Hussein's last days, a little boy is shown befriending him, and Hussein seems to remember some tiny and long-lost moment of innocence buried in his consciousness.

"House of Saddam" is not the story of a good man gone bad but of a bad one gone worse -- a chilling and riveting essay on the evils that men do and continue doing, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium.

Parts 1 and 2 of House of Saddam (two hours) air tomorrow night at 9 on HBO; the last two parts will be shown the following Sunday night at 9.

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