50/50: The Devil's Double (2011)

Introducing 50/50!
Greetings, and welcome to the newest segment on my site called 50/50. This is a special undertaking for the year 2020, where I pick apart fifty films that I consider engaging, intriguing, and fun to discuss. All in the span of fifty weeks.

This is not a countdown where one film on the list is pitted against the other in hopes of seeing which film is the best. No, these are just insights into movies that act as food for thought. So cutting back on the chit-chat, I hope that you will enjoy this cinematic buffet with me!

#5: The Devil's Double (2011) Or, Bombastic Bile of a Spoiled Brat...

On June 18th, 1964, Saddam Hussein—one of the histories most brutal dictators—was given a son which he named Uday Saddam Hussein. The scariest thing about Uday was that he was actually worse than his father when he reached adulthood. So frightening of a man, that Saddam has actually been on record to say (I am paraphrasing): “I will not give the presidency to my son. A man that evil should not have that much power.”

Really ponder on that for a second, dwell on it. One of the most iron-fisted rulers in human history is saying that his own son should not be given the throne because he is too evil. If one can get a dictator to raise an eyebrow at your actions, then you know you are one bad apple, and as the saying goes, “bad apples never ripen.” There has not been a lot of entertainment media about Saddam Hussein, let alone the turbulent family he was the leader of. But one film shows the life of his corrupt son, also known as “The Black Prince,” as told through the eyes of his body double, Latif Yahia. It's called The Devil's Double.

Some of the claims made by Yahia have been disputed by Iraqi people and the rest of the world. Still, two things are for sure: The brutality of Uday, as described by Yahia, is real. And the Devil's Double directed by Lee Tamahori and starring Dominic Cooper—as both Latif and Uday—is one of the most intriguing films I have ever seen.

The Devil's Double walks the line between being an exploitative shock piece and an action movie, the sort of schlock that was pushed mostly in the seventies and eighties. Think of the films The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, Caligula, and Scarface, and you will grasp the kind of movie The Devil's Double is. The larger-than-life personality of Idi Amin, the depravity of Caligula, and the gangster aesthetic of Tony Montana are what primarily make the man that was Uday Hussein. And the film shows this in some of the most uncomfortable ways. Make no mistake, this is an exploitation flick, and it is understandable why many do not like this picture. Met with polarizing critical reviews and audience response, The Devil's Double is chocked full of sensationalized violence, gratuitous sexuality, rape, and intense drama. 

Much of the drama is deftly portrayed by Dominic Cooper. That is the central aspect of the film, which received the most praise. Cooper is a master at switching between being rational to derange at the drop of a pin. At one moment, he is playing Latif Yahia, a calm and collected man. Latif is a proud patriot of Iraq who clearly has a moral center and duty to his country—disgusted by the vicious antics of Uday Hussein. But when the gloves are off, Cooper goes to the inescapable tar-blackness that is Uday. He makes all around him—the characters of the film and the viewer—draw full attention. We, as the helpless observer, cannot escape the suffocating hold. Spastic, loud, flamboyant, and unpredictable, Uday was a frightening figure. And Cooper plays this role with fearsome accuracy. Everything from Uday's mannerisms to his cackling laugh and nails-on-a-chalkboard speech; is hyper-energetic and exhausting. It is as if Cooper snorted a truckload of cocaine to put his mind in the deranged headspace that was necessary to fulfill the role. Not far from the truth, since Uday was an avid user of many uppers. Everything about Uday is a narcissistic exercise, from his vast collection of luxury cars, gold plated guns, flashy clothing, and voracious sexual appetite. Watching The Devil's Double is like being on a drug-addled binge, the mind reeling with desires of sexual excess and lack of inhibition. Is it polished schlock? You can bet your bottom dollar on that! But much like Caligula (which I will also discuss at some point), the historical accuracy cannot be disputed. 

So what about the other half of this equation, Latif Yahia? It must be admitted, the grandiose personality of Cooper's portrayal of Uday overshadows his of Latif. However, Cooper still does well in his role as Latif, playing a man who is trapped in a horrifying situation. Latif does everything he can to maintain a sense of decency in a family that has gone down a path of pitch-black darkness. To play such a role would not be easy. And there is no way any director could make such a violent time in history palatable in any way. Luckily for Latif—due to his military training—he was able to escape a terrifying ordeal, but not after irreparable damage to his psyche. 

On the technical side of things, The Devil's Double is a polished looking film. Much of the glittering spectacle of the Hussein family is on full display. To peer into the life of the wealthy and murderous is ghastly, but there is a small part of oneself that wishes to live the gangster-empire life. Take one look at the movie poster of this film, never has “what you see is what you get” been so apt. 

Aside from the lurid spectacle of the film is a central point of criticism, The Devil's Double has also had accusation thrown its way in regards to whitewashing. I admit, this thought crossed my mind while watching this movie. Visible to any privy of some of the actors, Dominic Cooper has no Arab ancestry. Neither does Phillip Quast—who plays in a few brief scenes as Saddam Hussein. While I do acknowledge this to a degree, the crew of this movie could have fooled me if I was none the wiser. The acting is that good, and in all honesty, how many Iraqi actors could be found to play such roles. Especially when the wounds of the Hussein government are still fresh in the minds of many of the countries citizens. And to the defense of the casting, there are actors in the film who have Middle Eastern descent. I do believe my arguments are somewhat flimsy—but Cooper's portrayal is so gripping, and I am sticking to that assessment. Unfortunately, I am unable to find much information on what Latif Yahia thought of this film. Maybe someday, when the dust is more settled, the people of Iraq will make films about their own history and better than The Devil's Double could. 

Lurid, loud, violent, and with some of the best damn acting by a leading role I have ever seen. The Devil's Double is the ultimate story of a spoiled rich kid gone psychotically wrong. 


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