Generally when a film is “based on a true story” the question is, “how much did the filmmakers embellish actual events?” For “The Devil’s Double” it’s, “how much did they censor them?”
“The Devil’s Double” is director Lee Tamahori‘s adaptation of the life and autobiography of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier forced to become the fidai (meaning body double, or more literally, “bullet catcher”) of Saddam Hussein’s brutal son, the “Black Prince” Uday. Set to the driving beat of ’80s pop, against a backdrop of grainy Gulf War footage, the semi-factual tale chronicles Yahia’s life from surgical transformation into the decadent and horrific world of unbridled lust and murderous rage he was forced to witness and live.
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Even though it chronicles Yahia’s time in Uday Hussein’s service, the film is less a factual retelling than a retro-gangster flick. The film’s producers hired director Tamahori (the man behind the explosive “Die Another Day”) to helm the project because he saw it as a “Scarface” style tale, not a biopic. Tamahori said that, “the truth doesn’t set you free in movies. Truth layered with fiction sets you free.”
In this case, maybe that’s best. Screenwriter Michael Thomas said of Yahia’s life: “There’s a lot more, and a lot worse on the record than what I was even able to touch upon in the screenplay.” The film gets pretty brutal. Reality must have been hell. At a party, Uday – high on cocaine – slices a man’s stomach open and Yahia is nearly killed several times by rebels mistaking him for Uday, and even by Uday himself.
Unfortunately, the brutality and gangster glorification of Uday’s life and Yahia’s experience couldn’t cover holes in the script. Numerous narrative arcs are introduced in one scene and quickly concluded in another – with little explanation for character transformations. These occur mainly as the film moves from the dark glamor of Uday’s life to Yahia’s efforts to escape it. Despite these hasty arcs, the film somehow gets boring in the middle as it portrays the daily revelry and debauchery of Uday, and Yahia’s public tour as his double. Unlike “Scarface,” there’s nothing good in this glamorous life to cling to at any point, as Uday’s obsessions and brutality lead him into child rape (not shown) and torture. The scenes are difficult to stomach and impossible to glorify.
What saves the film is its acting. Dominic Cooper stars as both Yahia and Uday in two very distinct performances. Cooper as Uday is brash, passionate, violent, uncontrollable, and insatiable – while he seems charming and funny on the surface, he viciously murders a friend of the family, kidnaps a schoolgirl, and beats Latif. As Yahia, Cooper is reserved, quietly rebellious, and stubborn – a subtle force that eventually bursts forth. With different hair styles, an altered voice, and false teeth, Cooper convincingly switches between Latif and Uday. Tamahori seamlessly combines the characters in numerous scenes.
Fortunately, the film chronicles not only Uday’s terrifying reign as Black Prince, but his fall as well. And while fact and fiction are blurred, one thing at least is true: Uday was eventually killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And while at film’s end you might wonder what was fact, at least there’s comfort in knowing that you didn’t have to watch the worst of it.