TV Review: House of Saddam

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Airdate: 9-11 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14 (HBO)

Saddam Hussein hasn’t been in the news much lately. Being hanged to death two years ago will have that effect. Still, the situation in Iraq continues to be impacted by his life and his ruthlessness, only some of which is widely known.

HBO Films’ “House of Saddam” fills in enough details for a complete picture of this devious dictator to emerge but there is a catch. You’ve got to be willing to put aside four hours, which is asking a lot when the subject is a dead, savage, cold-hearted, brutal, megalomaniacal tyrant.

So why do it? Because “Saddam” is as least as much drama as it is documentary. It crackles with palace intrigue, family rivalries and the unpredictability of an amoral strongman with an unquenchable thirst for power and absolutely no qualms about snuffing out the lives of friend and foe alike.

There are a good many fascinating performances here, starting with Igal Naor’s portrayal of Saddam, Philip Arditti as his mercurial and hedonistic son Uday and Amr Waked as Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s cousin and eventual son-in-law.

The telefilm, “a dramatization based on certain facts,” hews closely to what is known and verified. Alex Holmes, who co-wrote, directed and exec produced, ventures few opinions, preferring instead to let Saddam’s actions speak for themselves. The few times Saddam actually comments on his philosophy of ruling, explaining at one point that terror is a tool and not an end in itself, the insight is profound. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these moments.

Consequently, even after all four hours, questions remain. Why, for example, did Saddam play a cat-and-mouse game with weapons inspectors when Iraq already was weakened by U.N. sanctions and he knew he risked a U.S.-led invasion that would topple him?

The mini starts with the bloody coup led by Saddam in 1979 when he seized the reins of government and installed mostly loyal family members. It ends with Saddam’s capture in 2003, a broken man emerging from a rat hole. Although there is practically no reference to the chemical gas used on the Kurdish population during the 1980s (the mini’s largest omission), the telefilm astutely points out how ambiguous American policy statements might have caused some misdirection.

The perspective one gets from inside the House of Saddam is different than media reports from the outside and is, in itself, an important reason to tune in.

Production: HBO Films in association with the BBC.
Cast: Igal Naor, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Philip Arditti, Said Taghmaoui, Christine Stephen-Daly, Makram J. Khoury, Mounir Margoum, Agni Scott, Amr Waked, Akbar Kurtha, Said Amadis, Uri Gavriel.
Director: Alex Holmes.
Writers: Alex Holmes, Stephen Butchard.
Executive producers: Alex Holmes, Hilary Salmon.
Producer: Steve Lightfoot.
Co-producer: Andrew Wood.
Line producer: Nick Jones.
Director of photography: Florian Hoffmeister.
Production designer: Maurice Cain.
Editor: Philip Kloss.
Music: Samuel Sim.
Set decorator: Dominic Smithers.
Casting: Elaine Grainger.
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