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Godfather of the Gulf

HBO’s House of Saddam is uneven but sometimes fascinating

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House of Saddam struggles to hold its audience’s attention because every single character it presents is some degree of reprehensible.

HBO teams up again with the BBC for House of Saddam (December 7 & 14, 9 p.m.), a classy if often inert drama about the rise and fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Beginning with Saddam’s ascension to the presidency in 1979 and ending with his 2006 execution, House documents four specific periods in the infamous leader’s life, focusing on his dealings with his family and closest associates. The four-hour miniseries deals only briefly with Saddam’s interactions with other world leaders, or with his effects on the common people of Iraq. This insular approach loses some big-picture perspective, but also provides the closest thing to sympathy for the brutal dictator and his cutthroat lieutenants as is likely possible.

Even so, House struggles to hold its audience’s attention because every single character it presents is some degree of reprehensible. The miniseries doesn’t sugarcoat Saddam’s brutalities, although he’s shown at times expressing tender feelings toward his children, his wife and his mistress (who later becomes his second wife). Israeli actor Igal Naor gives as strong a performance as could be expected as Saddam, whose rank cruelty often makes him one-dimensional as a TV character. Other figures, including Saddam’s first wife Sajida (the excellent Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) and a handful of advisors who experience minor crises of conscience before being summarily dispatched, come across as more nuanced, but their presence is minimal compared to how much Naor is onscreen as Saddam.

Writers Alex Holmes and Steven Butchard generally avoid making political statements by leaving Americans and all Westerners almost exclusively as looming, off-screen presences. The two Presidents Bush are each seen only briefly via news clips, and U.N. weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus is the only foreigner to play any significant role in the story. Certainly Saddam’s actions are portrayed as atrocious and unforgivable, but the question of whether foreign intervention in Iraq was justified is never really addressed.

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House of Saddam
Two and a half stars
December 7 and 14, 9 p.m. on HBO
House of Saddam on HBO

Instead, what we get is remarkably akin to a cinematic gangster saga, like the Godfather trilogy or Goodfellas. Saddam is paranoid in the extreme and quick to do away with anyone whom he suspects of even the slightest disloyalty; he has his closest allies killed nearly as often as he has them promoted. Like a movie gangster, Saddam surrounds himself with extended family members; nearly all of his closest advisors are relatives in some way. And his dangerous way of life takes its toll on his loved ones, especially women and children. Viewed through the prism of the Hollywood crime saga, House can be engrossing and even dramatically satisfying, despite the outcome of the story being known from the start.

But this isn’t a Hollywood saga, and Saddam’s crimes so easily dwarf Michael Corleone’s that it’s hard to lose yourself in the storytelling. The third and fourth episodes, which deal with post-Gulf War economic sanctions and the 2003 American invasion respectively, often recall the 2004 German film Downfall, which recounted the last days of Hitler’s regime at the end of World War II. There’s a train-wreck fascination to watching things fall apart so spectacularly, and a certain satisfaction in seeing such morally bankrupt figures as Saddam’s son Uday get what’s clearly coming to them.

That’s not quite enough to sustain four hours, though; House never gets under Saddam’s skin in even the relatively simplistic way that Oliver Stone did in W., his recent study of Saddam’s greatest nemesis, George W. Bush. Taken as a whole, it lays bare just how corrosive and violent Saddam’s reign was, but it struggles to find a reason for us to want to watch it all unfold in unflinching, unpleasant detail.

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