House of Saddam

When we say that history is tantamount to doctrine, and is remembered by those who inherit it with contemplation, consideration and responsibility, this is because everything right is born with it and from it, and becomes a new and constant history after it gives a new birth with each glory and construction. A firm belief is its safe foundation.

Saddam Hussein, 17 January 2003

Only Saddam knows what Saddam is thinking. Only Saddam knows what we all are thinking.

— Barzan Ibrahim (Saïd Taghmaoui)

“Many Iraqis can hear me tonight in a translated radio broadcast, and I have a message for them,” says an alarmingly young-looking George W. Bush — alarming because his soft face marks a moment just five years ago. He looks out from a television screen, the grainy image further blurring his features. “If we must begin a military campaign,” the president assures his viewers, “it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you.”

One of these lawless men serves as the grim center of House of Saddam, a joint HBO and BBC miniseries that begins tonight and ends next Sunday. Watching Saddam Hussein (Igal Naor) watch Bush present his case for war on television, the irony is hard to miss. While both men declare the war a means to make history, neither, the miniseries submits, anticipates the devastation it will bring. Not only is American president here promising a moral order that will remain elusive (“In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms”), but the Iraqi leader is also looking into a reflection of his own end, born of hubris and deception and decades of disloyalties. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” says Bush, as Saddam instructs his sons to resist the coming U.S. invasion.

From this terrible moment, House of Saddam cuts back to one many that led to it: Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Saddam Hussein’s assumption of the Iraqi presidency in 1979. The scene is a sumptuous official party: Saddam’s bejeweled wife Sajida (Shohreh Aghdashloo) observes as he herds current president Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (Sason Gabay) into a sitting room, along with Saddam’s half-brother and future head of security Barzan Ibrahim (Saïd Taghmaoui). Professing outrage that the ailing al-Bakr has been signing treaties with Syria, Saddam forces him to resign and appoint him as successor. Almost immediately afterwards, Saddam solidifies his reputation as Baathist strongman; Barzan tortures an erstwhile friend into confessing publicly that he was part of a Syrian-based conspiracy to overthrow al-Bakr and Saddam, a speech that leads to the execution of 22 Ba’ath party members: Saddam orders his loyalists to shoot their onetime friends one by one, then kills one close friend himself.

With this quick series of brutal scenes, House of Saddam sets its emotional and political trajectory, painting its protagonist as a monster whose increasing paranoia and aggression lead him to kill off fearful supporters and allow his sons, Uday (Philip Arditti) and Qusay (Mounir Margoum), to murder, rape, and torture in the name of asserting “control.” Saddam’s reign is rendered in serial set-pieces, illustrating his love of Iraq as property and emblem (“We are lucky men,” he tells his son while they hunt rabbits in the desert, “We have a land to die for”); voracious appetites (as he paws a general’s wife, the blond Samira [Christine Stephen-Daly], his loyal supporter Hussein Kamel al-Majid [Amr Waked] warns the husband, “I’d really do nothing if I were you, there will be compensation”); and thorough cruelty (watching his mother [Izabella Telezynska] die, he’s bathed in red light as he leans toward her and hisses, “You gave me nothing!”).

Though Saddam recalls his own father’s absence and his stepfather’s beatings, for the most part, his relentless bad-guyness lacks historical and political contexts. He hates the Ayatollah Khomeni (visible on background televisions) and exploits U.S. hypocrisies (“Reagan knows about our use of chemical weapons and still, their foreign policy favors Iraq”). He marries off his daughters to forge political alliances and has his brother-in-law Adnan (Said Amadis) assassinated when his able leadership of the army makes him too popular. The miniseries paints his relations with his two notorious sons in especially lurid colors. When Uday beats in the head of his father’s longtime servant, then downs a bottle full of pills in a panicky suicide attempt, Saddam looks on him in his pathetic hospital gown: “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t cut you into pieces,” he snarls. “You think violence is a pastime? It is a tool. We are not barbarians.”

But of course, the miniseries insists again and again, Saddam is a barbarian, and he trains his sons and minions to reflect his own image. Desperately afraid to displease their leader, more-or-less believers in the effectiveness of violence as a “tool,” they commit numerous atrocities, including the nerve-and-mustard-gas attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing 5,000 citizens: laughing over it, Defense Minister (Chemical) Ali Hassan al-Majid (Uri Gavriel) wonders at the U.S. charge that it was genocide, “All because I killed a few Kurds?” His son Hussein (Amr Waked) smiles, “No, because you enjoyed it.” When Sajida tries to quiet this grotesque joking by reminding the men they are gathered for a “family occasion,” Saddam corrects her, “We are government.”

This becomes a central theme for House of Saddam, that the family he claims and the government he assembles are both functions of his personal psychopathologies. He believes he can defeat the U.S. and George Bush in particular because he and his sons — blood and designated — have “the greater will.” If his most expansively brutal offenses are noted in passing (archival footage presented as TV news, brief comments by the wives and daughters who cannot stop the excesses), the miniseries contends that the insular world of Saddam Hussein shapes his willful blindness to his own effects. At the same time, it warps the worldviews of all his followers, frightened for their lives. When Hussein at last comes to believe he is in danger — and not incidentally that he would be a better leader for Iraq — he flees to Jordan, bringing along his wife and Saddam’s daughter Raghad (Agni Scott), along with her sister (Shivani Ghai) and her husband/his brother, Saddam (Daniel Lundh). Raghad is stunned that he would attempt such heresy. “All this time you worked with my father, and you still think you can win?” she asks, “You know nothing about him.”

For its part, House of Saddam provides little insight into Saddam Hussein. Instead, it repeats truisms about well-reported events, many of them best remembered as TV images: the 2003 shock-and-awe campaign, Uday and Qusay’s corpses (“They put my sons’ bodies on television and showed them to the world,” wails Sajida, her mascara running, “Why?”), Saddam’s capture in the spider hole (the suspense elaborated by cutting between his dark confinement to NVG-green shots of scurrying U.S. troops) and his execution by hanging. Saddam’s life and death are thus reduced to melodrama, his history to television.

RATING 5 / 10