I saw the trailer for this, and to be honest, my primary interest in it was that it promised to show a lot of hot guys with mustaches wearing suits, sunglasses and smoking cigars, while doing drugs and fucking women. All of that it delivered in spades, and the fact that it turned out to be a little better than expected--but not quite THAT good--was only gravy.
This is adapted from a true story, told in the memoir of its main character, Latif. We first see him being driven into Baghdad, and brought into a big palace. There he meets Uday Hussein, who he looks very much like (they are both played by Dominic Cooper). Uday says they were friends back in school, which Latif remembers as that they merely went to the same school. Uday asks Latif to move in and become his double, appearing at public events instead of Uday and being used as a more visible target than Uday himself. Latif is told to think about it, but replies "You are asking me to extinguish myself," and refuses. He is taken and tortured until he changes his mind, with the additional incentive that if he refuses, his entire family will be thrown into Abu Ghraib. Munam, man who will be Latif's assistant, tells him "Uday has chosen you. You belong to him." Latif's family will just think that he is dead.
Latif is outfitted like Uday, asked to live in Uday's home, and that he can have anything and any woman, so long as he doesn't happen to choose the things or women Uday wants for himself. He is given minor plastic surgery, and outfitted with false teeth and adjusted outfits until the transformation is complete. Cooper plays Uday with a higher voice and hopped-up manner, so that they truly do seem like two different people, and there's never any trouble telling them apart. Their scenes together are also largely seamless. When Latif escapes to go see his family, he is quickly caught, and Uday whips him himself.
The next hour is devoted to demonstrating that Uday is quite insane, and a megalomanic tyrant, and Latif is growing more and more trapped and embedded. Latif is in the car while Uday trolls the streets for underage schoolgirls, then we see Uday later terrorizing one of them as he commands her to beg him to fuck her. We see her body later dumped out in a field. Uday also goes nuts at a party, takes up a huge knife and carves up his father's best friend in front of everyone. Latif says to Munam "He's insane. You turn a blind eye because it's your job." After killing his father's friend, Uday tries to kill himself, and is visited in the hospital by Saddam himself. Saddam threatens to cut off his son's genitals, but is told it would kill Uday. Saddam says "I should have killed him at birth." This is one of the only traces we get of why Uday might have turned out this way, which I wished there had been a bit more of, but ultimately this is really Latif's story.
Latif recklessly gets involved with Uday's mistress, Sarrab, played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier. There is something a bit off about her from the start, seeing as she's clearly not quite Middle Eastern, but the discordance kind of works for the movie. He also becomes more and more bold in standing up to Uday, because really, he's going to just be killed and disposed of at some point, it may as well be from something he had control over. His decency, and Uday's insanity, also gather Latif some friends within Uday's regime. Toward the end there is an extended diversion that is where I started saying "Okay, this movie is going on too long," but it wraps itself up soon after with an ending that is appropriate and satisfying.
So I'm particularly interested in films based on true stories, because the challenge of the screenwriter is to APPLY a theme and subtext to a series of events that already exists, instead of inventing a number of events that demonstrate a theme and subtext. With a true story, you have to add a layer of thematic coherence over things that have happened, that you (theoretically) can't change too much, in order to make it a satisfying film story and have an overall momentum. This film brings that up because while it did a decent job, it did it just decently enough to expose all the opportunities it missed.
A well-worn storytelling device--so well-worn because it is effective--is the figure of the double or doppelgänger. And here you have a story where that doesn't have to be forced on, it is right there in the events, yet the film doesn't take as much advantage of it as it could. Latif never seems to enjoy any of the riches, drugs or women that are so plentifully available, which you'd think he might, a little bit, given the tiny glimpse we get of his middle-class former life. He never seems to get into the opportunity to be someone else. One direction the film could have gone with is to have Latif grow good in proportion to Uday's being bad; that Uday's evil creates a goodness in Latif, but nope. The movie feints a bit in this direction with Latif's affair with Sarrab, as she is choosing an identical double to her boyfriend (with one difference the movie keeps pointing out), but it doesn't really come to anything. Not to mention that their affair never really makes much sense at all, given that the movie has established Latif as smart: he should see that coming at him and run the other way.
One other direction the movie makes gestures toward but doesn't complete is a vague homoerotic bond between Latif and Uday, noted in all the talk of their cocks, a hint that Uday may have received anal intercourse, and repeated assertions that Uday will never let Latif go because he "loves him too much." Not to mention that Saddam also, in a way, gets a replacement son in Latif, one who isn't a fuck-up, and if that's not enough thematic opportunity, even Saddam has a double. Hey, screenwriter Michael Thomas, all of this is RIGHT THERE in your face, and none of it needs to be forced in, why don't you take advantage of it?
But no, the producers seem to have fixed on a story that naturally displays a lot of riches and drugs and women--with the obligatory moral tut-tutting that must accompany it--and seems to have chosen to have chosen the gangster film as its template. Wonder at all the riches! Look at all those drugs and cash! Get off on the excesses of these crazy characters! Then go home reassured that such things always lead to being an evil tyrant, and you are in fact much better off--and morally superior!--leading your little middle-class American life, highlighted by the occasional special trip to Appleby's.
It's a crying shame this movie can't be taken back and revised right now, especially given the gem of a performance you have by Dominic Cooper. This isn't a bad movie--it's just good enough to make apparent how much better it could have easily been.
If you want, it's pretty good.