Tired of those run-of-the-mill biopics and staid Iraq war dramas that avoid sensationalism out of respect for their subjects? Want a peek into the orgiastic, debauched, ultra-violent underbelly of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? Director Lee Tamahori brought all that and more to an unsuspecting audience — and conjured his own comparisons to David Fincher’s The Social Network, naturally — with The Devil’s Double, the guiltiest thrill of Sundance 2011.
Based very, very loosely on the life of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi lieutenant enlisted to double for Saddam’s out-of-control elder son Uday, The Devil’s Double stars Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!) in a bravura dual performance as both the monster and his innocent stand-in. Forced into indentured servitude under pain of torture and threats to his family, and transformed into a perfect doppelganger through plastic surgery and mimicry lessons, Cooper’s stoic Latif watches disapprovingly as Uday rapes and murders his way through life in a coke-fueled psychopathic haze, a pistol-waving, sex-obsessed, wild-eyed, magnetic thug with a penchant for schoolgirls and no interest in becoming the responsible heir apparent to his stern, menacing father. Whenever Uday is incapacitated or lazy, he sends Latif to make speeches to the troops; eventually, when Latif has had enough, he takes Uday’s favorite mistress (Ludivine Sagnier) as his own. The two men are brothers in Uday’s perverse way of thinking, and the only way Latif will ever escape his enslavement is in death.
Though he plays fast and loose with the facts, Tamahori claims to get the most important details right: The well-documented horrors of life inside the palace walls, where even honored guests and confidantes of Saddam were in danger of Uday’s explosive, violent rage; Uday’s proclivity for abusing his power to kidnap, rape, and murder young girls. (A brief scene in which Latif comes across the sight of two Saddams playing tennis is a comically bizarre break from the brutality.) The Devil’s Double is a portrait of a monster, no doubt, and yet the movie indicates he’s nothing in comparison to his father.
That sense for the corruption and danger that hung in the air during the Hussein family regime is what lingers most, even after Tamahori’s tale flies off the rails and enters almost legendary WTF? status. First comes the melodramatic love triangle, brought to the edge of campiness by Ludivine Sagnier’s anti-subtle turn as the sultry minx Sarrab (perhaps the film’s most egregiously ridiculous bit of non-ethnic casting, but hey). Then there’s the bombastic lovers’ escape, in which Sarrab and Latif literally ride off triumphantly on horseback. But nothing compares to how Tamahori ends it all by channeling his own James Bond past, transforming the epic-scale gangster pic into an all-out spy actioner, slo-mo shoot-outs and sexy hero shots and all. (Or, as an astute writer pal put it, “It’s a real life version of Medellin.”)
Tamahori took the stage after his Sundance premiere to answer a lot of questions. Portraying Latif Yahia’s story in its factual details was never the plan, for starters. “I’m not a great fan of truth in film,” he explained, lauding Michael Thomas’s “odd and twisted” screenplay.
Though many of the scenes of torture, rape, and killing in the film came from actual documented events, the real Uday’s crimes “are all worse than we possibly could have portrayed.” (Tamahori sent a ripple through the crowd when he suggested, unflinchingly, that the unruly, power-hungry children of despots across the world should be lined up against a wall and shot.)
And finally, the first person to compare Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double to The Social Network was, of course, Lee Tamahori. While Fincher pulled a digital facelift to allow his two Winklevii to share the screen, Tamahori and star Cooper (whose impressive turns as Uday and Latif are like night and day) used a variation on the technique to shoot the film’s many Latif-Uday scenes, filming a master shot in one character first, then editing for sound and throwing Cooper back in to play the second part in the same day.
Will Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double earn Social Network-level plaudits when it’s eventually released? (A deal with Lionsgate is reportedly close.) Probably not. The material’s just too insane. But let’s be real: That’s exactly why it will appeal to many. Because as much as The Devil’s Double is about the innocent man who lived to tell the tale, it’s the most revealing, rape-y, torture-filled, excessively gaudy inside look at Iraq’s unstable family of thugs that we’re likely to ever get. The film itself falls prone to the sensory indulgences of its maker, but at a certain point it no longer matters whether that’s by design or not.