In a scene during the first part of House of Saddam, the titular dictator visits the set of a propaganda film about himself, proudly posing next to the young, handsome actor hired to play him and tells a reporter, “Remarkable resemblance, don’t you think?” For a man so obsessed with image and power, it’s possible Saddam Hussein once imagined who would play him in a movie about his life, but it’s certain he never thought it would happen quite so soon or that he would be portrayed by a Jewish actor from Israel. Yigal Naor plays the deposed despot with a menacing thunder in this four-part miniseries from HBO and the BBC, where he is shown routinely employing the machinations of a mafia boss to maintain his power. Indeed, Saddam often feels more like an episode of The Sopranos than a taut international drama.
Like Tony Soprano, the entire basis of Hussein’s power comes from the threats he can eliminate and the awareness that those around him live in fear of what he might do next. As such, there’s much in Saddam that feels recycled. Even Hussein’s wife, with her dyed blond hair, kitschy clothing, and excessive makeup, looks like a Carmela Soprano clone. Were the similarities between this miniseries and HBO’s former hit show not so obvious they would be easy to overlook, but they occur frequently enough to seem almost intentional.
Sopranos parallels aside, Saddam never offers any real insights into the Butcher of Baghdad. Certainly there’s no need to sympathize with his actions, but there isn’t even a hint of likeability or any serious study into Hussein’s political maneuverings, making the series as dry as its desert landscape. We’ve seen similar, and much better, rise-and-fall stories in Scarface and Goodfellas, both of which dealt with the criminal world. While the storyline benefits from its unique setting, Baghdad is miserably underused as a locale; there are occasional suicide bombings and roadside attacks, luxurious Middle Eastern complexes, the odd camel or two, but rarely do we feel the appropriate atmosphere or see the social upheavals Iraq was mired in throughout Hussein’s reign. Furthermore, despite the importance of the dictator’s religious beliefs and how he used them to wield power over his country, they are only a footnote here—addressed in scenes depicting the Koran being written in his own blood and his family tree (likely rewritten) to show a direct lineage to the prophet Muhammad.
Were it not bogged down by presenting Hussein as the ultimate baddy in competition with criminal caricatures like Tony Soprano or Tony Montana, this miniseries could have made itself into a fascinating political drama by focusing on its more distinctive areas. Surely, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, about the final days of Adolf Hitler, would have been a greater source of inspiration for how it successfully blends the unwinding of historical events with the isolation of the Führer. Instead, Saddam mistakenly downplays history and aims far too low, relying on moribund mafia motifs that sensationalize and spoil what could have been an otherwise absorbing subject.
A typically clear image for an HBO release with well-balanced 5.1 audio. No major problems or outstanding elements to note.
The only bonus feature is a 10-minute featurette on the second disc examining the real-life people and events as described by members of the cast and crew. A mildly interesting addition, but it's hardly the "in-depth look" the DVD claims.
Saddam Hussein might not deserve better, but viewers surely do.