Uday Hussein, eldest son of Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was allegedly known for torturing national athletes who failed to win. He was known for kidnapping school girls off the streets of Baghdad and raping, and perhaps sometimes murdering them. He was called a psychopath by Egyptian leader, Mubarak. The story, The Devil's Double, starring Dominic Cooper, is only partly about Uday.
The main character is Latif Yahia who was a classmate of Uday's, and later in life, his unwilling body double. When we meet Latif, he is being brought to the opulent palace of the dictator's son. It is there that he is told by a manic Uday that he is to be made a "brother." He will become Uday for certain events -- notably: events where Uday could be assassinated). The rest of the time, he will live in luxury as Uday's 'friend'.
Even knowing how U'day reacts, he is not willing to do this; so he is thrown in prison and beaten. When that fails to quickly produce a result, his family is threatened. The threat is that they would be sent to Abu Grabe – a place where it is said, "If God is merciful, they will die quickly."
Thus begins The Devil's Double, a look inside the life of a psychopath and the unwilling man who is forced to 'play him'. Set in 1980's and 1990's Baghdad, we see a life of extreme luxury where nothing is forbidden and everything is available. Uday is unstable, capricious, somewhat charismatic -- but always dangerous. He takes what he wants and kills if he feels like it.
Dominic Cooper has to do heavy lifting playing both characters and changing his manner such that we can instantly tell which of them we are supposed to be looking at. I quickly forgot that while watching "both of them" on screen together was a special effect, and even knowing the "final fate" of Uday, the movie had some historically accurate surprises in store for me.
It is not an easy movie -- we see some acts of extreme cruelty, and while we are spared the worst of the brutality, it is still rough going. There are no scenes of actual torture, although we do see Latif forced to watch a tape from Uday's personal collection. The movie introduces several characters who are somewhat ambiguous -- bodyguards, handlers, and women who have complex loyalties to say the least. Philip Quast shines as Saddam, a strongman's strongman who is powerful and rightly feared.
The pacing is quick, although there were some points where I felt it needed to hurry up even more, but the opulence, the sense of place, and the exotic events kept me in the movie. Shot in Malta, The Devil's Double effortlessly evokes Baghdad. What feels like a lightning storm with bright flashes and rolling 'thunder' is really American bombing. Taken as a whole, the world we get to see is alien. It is probably familiar to us only from the other side of a bomber's camera from the news. For the characters, this is what it looked like to live in a fantastically rich, petro-dollar-fueled dictatorship, only later to fall under attack by the most advanced military in the world.
We get to know Latif as a man of character and Uday as a monster. While parts of the story may be hard to watch or (a bit) strange to western sensibilities, I think the film does a magnificent job of bringing home what was there before we destroyed it and gives us a tiny slice of what it might have been like to live under that regime. I found it powerful, fascinating, and on of this summer's best films.