The BBC and HBO mini-series House of Saddam is the fascinating tale of a family's corruption and betrayals that is so rich and so riveting that yes, it did remind me, in many ways, of The Sopranos. It is a little too spotty and occasionally convoluted to quite measure up to the comparison, but like the best episodes of that series, Saddam sees through black-and-white ideas of evil to identify the kind of petty insecurities and raging egos that so frequently fuel a criminal empire. It is not a sympathetic portrait, not by any stretch, but it is also not a simple one.
In the modern biopic style of Che or W., House of Saddam is not a comprehensive biography; it instead focuses on a few key moments, often leaving out the stuff that we're familiar with. The structure is fairly ingenious, as writers Stephen Butchard and Alex Holmes take on a short period of time in each of the series' four one-hour episodes, with several years between each.
The series begins with a very brief prologue, showing Bush's ultimatum to the Husseins on the eve the U.S. invasion in March 2003. It then jumps back to the summer of 1979, recreating, in detail, how then-Deputy President Saddam Hussein (Yigal Naor) took power of Iraq from President al-Bakr. We see his purging of the Ba'ath Party leadership, in a vivid sequence where the "detractors" of the nation are outed and subsequently executed; we see him kill his best friend Adnan Hamdani as some sort of twisted display of his own strength. Iraq's brutal war with Iran, his final conflicts with his dying mother, and the first of many attempts on Hussein's own life are also seen, powerfully recreated and anchored by Naor's excellent performance. He doesn't bear much of a resemblance to the title character, but he creates a compelling portrait of the man's strength and weakness; he is especially good in an awkward and uncomfortable scene where he romances his potential mistress--in front of the woman's current husband. The only real flaw (of the series in general, but particularly this first episode) is that it can be a little hard to follow if you're not entirely familiar with all the players. However, the disc does supply helpful descriptions of each part in the episode menu, which provide some orientation for the less historically-savvy viewer.
Part two jumps to August of 1988, focusing on Hussein's marital indulgences and increasing paranoia, as well as the out-of-control brutality of his son Uday (portrayed with appropriate menace by Philip Arditti). The second episode also details the run-up to the Kuwaiti invasion and the (first) Gulf War. The series really picks up steam here; with introductions out of the way, the writing gets sharper and more potent, providing excellent acting beats for Naor, Adritti, and Mounir Margoum as Qusay. Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo is also quite strong as Sadaam's first wife Sajida; the scene where she tearfully and angrily confronts Saddam over the suspicious death of her brother, General Adnan, is an especially fine piece of acting. The episode ends with the Gulf War ceasefire, and a powerful closing scene that beautifully conveys the non-victory of both parties involved.
Part three begins in 1995, as an economically-impaired Iraq gives frequent run-arounds to UN weapons inspectors, in spite of the country's desperate need for the UN to lift trade sanctions. Those machinations are interesting, but the real juice in this episode is in the sibling rivalry between Uday, again out of control, and Sadaam's son-in-law, General Hussein Kamel, which leads to Kamel and his brother Saddam Kamel fleeing to Jordan with President Hussein's daughters in an ill-advised attempt to betray him. This is one of the most compelling sections of the series, a skillfully-written series of back-stabbings and lies that is somewhat akin to a Middle Eastern Godfather.
Part four returns us to March of 2003, but its primary focus is on the time we know less about, the subsequent weeks he spent hiding in Tikrit before being pulled out of that hiding hole by American troops. In the interim, he records tapes for radio broadcast to an audience that isn't listening, while Uday and Qusay attempt to hide and escape on their own. Adritti and Margoum's fear and desperation is palpable, and their last stand is a truly thrilling sequence. Their deaths provide more terrific acting moments for Aghdashloo ("they put my sons' bodies and television and showed them to the world") and Naor; his reaction to their deaths is a subtle and brilliant piece of work in this, his finest hour of the series. Directors Alex Holmes and Jim O'Hanlon exhibit plenty of fine visuals throughout the show, but there is no more powerful image than that of Hussein in his hole ("a coffin," as he calls it), a cigarette lighter burning in one hand, a pistol in the other. His final moments, in that hole and out of it, are tremendously satisfying; as he is marched in for his execution, we certainly don't like him, or feel for him. But we do feel like we might understand him a little more than we did.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 image is passable, if not exceptional. Detail is fine, particularly in the crisper close-ups, but the image is a bit grainier than expected, particularly in dark scenes and wide shots. By necessity of the locations and authentic costuming, the series doesn't utilize a terribly vibrant color palatte--lots of greens, blacks and browns. It's accurate and certainly acceptable, but doesn't give much pop to the visual presentation.
The 5.1 audio mix is quite solid, with dialogue consistently clear in the center channel, an excellent (and bass-heavy) score well-modulated in the surround and LFE channels, and plenty of environmental sounds (bombings, party scenes, desert hunts, and firefights) providing immersive directionality in the rear speakers.
A Spanish 2.0 mix is included, as well as Spanish, French, and English subtitles (though in the series, everyone in Iraq somehow always speaks English).
HBO is one of our most reliable sources of excellent programming, but their discs are frequently lacking in bonus features. House of Saddam is no exception, presenting only the brief promotional featurette "The Fate of a Dynasty" (9:58). It's a decent supplement, with filmmaker and cast interviews and some excellent archival footage of the real events, but it is frustratingly brief and shallow, considering the amount of material surely available for historical background and context.
House of Saddam is occasionally uneven and more than a little dense, but the storytelling is potent and there are moments of genuine power and emotional complexity. Performances are solid across the board, and all four episodes are smartly paced and well-crafted. HBO's DVD comes up short in the extras department, but this one is still well worth picking up.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.