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TV Weekend: House of Saddam

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On the first night of HBO’s House of Saddam miniseries, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is being shown a prototype of a monument being built to him, a pair of arms bearing crossed swords. It’s very small, Saddam says. The flustered demonstrator explains, nervously and cautiously, that it’s just a model. Saddam laughs. “I was joking!”

When a leader rises to power and acquires enemies, both sides have an interest in building him up to be greater than he is. In Iraq, Saddam of course built hortatory monuments and spread propaganda. And the two Bushes who fought wars against him (not to mention the Iranians who fought him and his enemies elsewhere), built him up as a world-class monster. He’s a nuclear threat! He’s a modern-day Hitler!

The project of House of Saddam is to render Saddam (Igal Naor) life-size, or a little smaller, once again. (A project already begun by his being overthrown and plucked out of a spider hole.) It’s a refreshing take and an interesting effort, if finally not quite a compelling one. 

House of Saddam, which airs this and the following Sunday in four parts, covers the atrocities of Saddam’s career—the bloody purge of his enemies, the random cruelties to his aides, the brutalizing of civilians and the manufacture of a state of paranoia—but seen in total, they are less the acts of a world-class mastermind of menace than the standard crimes of a Third World dictator. Certainly he was ruthless and a terror. Obviously his particular oil-rich corner of the world elevated his importance. Still, the miniseries makes it all the more astonishing that he was such an obsession of American policy for decades.  

Besides spanning Saddam’s career as leader—from taking power in a 1979 coup through his capture after the Iraq invasion—the twist of House of Saddam is its focus on his family life. Because he populated his government with extended relatives, and gave power to sons and in-laws, work-family balance was especially tricky for him.

We see him as a browbeaten son, harried in his early years by an ever-critical mother. We see him as the disappointed father—a la Tony Soprano—with sons who can’t fill his ideal of manliness and leadership, especially the psychotic Uday (Philip Arditti). (When his son whines about the heat on a hunting trip, Sadam sounds like Tony bitching at A.J.: “Of course you’re hot! We’re in the desert! Drink some water!”) And we see him as straying husband, who casts aside  his first wife (Shoreh Aghdashloo) for a pretty schoolteacher, the wife of another man. (“I would do nothing if I were you,” an aide tells the cuckold. “There will be compensation.”)

By far the most compelling character is Uday, an unstable, Euphratotrash sadist given to outbursts of random violence. After he beats an associate to death, Saddam blows up at him, but in a revealingly frustrated way:  “You think violence is a pastime? It is a tool! What are we, barbarians?”

It’s a darkly funny scene, but the miniseries’ picture of Saddam himself is not much of a revelation. Naor is a good physical match and conveys both his menace and his pressure-cooker intensity. But for all of the focus on his family issues, Saddam remains fairly inscrutable; we get a better sense of how he acts than how he thinks, why he takes steps like inviting war with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Is he ideological or just cynical? Is he interested in the grand scheme of history or just power and self-preservation? Does he believe his own propaganda? House of Saddam doesn’t make this much clearer. 

Maybe it’s because of the broad sweep of the miniseries, which spans nearly 30 years; we see Saddam characterized mostly through events widely covered in the news. (Some of the more interesting sections deal with the less-chronicled years between the two U.S. wars.) In any event, what we learn about his psyche is largely what you might have guessed about his psyche: that he fears seeming weak, values loyalty but is himself fickle, serves his own interests, learned early on that the route to safety was to completely brutalize the other guy first. 

Of course, that may be partly the point: showing that Saddam, ultimately, is not surprising, that he was just a garden-variety dictator. While that may not make House of Saddam a major event, it is in its own way a revelation. We spent how much time, money and blood… on this guy?