Told in four hourlong chapters that HBO will air over two nights, this BBC production about Saddam Hussein’s reign and eventual fall is best viewed as a gangster movie, with scenes that echo (almost comically at times) “The Godfather” and later “Scarface” — Hussein’s idiot son Uday even starts snorting coke and strutting around in white suits. Although the project reinforces (lest anyone need a reminder) that the Iraqi dictator was a ruthless sonofabitch, “House of Saddam” is too episodic to be fully engaging, providing a sporadically interesting glimpse into how cheap life was under Hussein’s brutal rule.
Handsomely shot in Tunisia, the story opens in 1979, as Hussein (Igal Naor) leverages the threat from the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran to depose the then-president, rapidly moving to consolidate his authority through a bloody purge of those who might oppose him. He’s egged on by his gnarled mother and supported by his wife Sajida (Shohreh Aghdashloo, probably the most recognizable face here) in these efforts, which include eliminating perceived enemies on his daughter’s wedding day.
Saddam controls all aspects of Iraqi life, and video shows children creepily singing “Oh, we love the leader” as war erupts with Iran. Part two picks up eight years later, as Saddam’s challenges grow: Not only does he find himself forced to clean up the messes of the sadistic Uday (Philip Arditti), but Saddam takes a mistress (Christine Stephen-Daly) and becomes estranged from Sajida. Saddam also becomes increasingly obsessed with Kuwait driving down oil prices and bankrupting Iraq in the process — getting a mixed signal that looks at worst like a yellow light from the U.S. ambassador on taking action against the emirate and thus setting the Gulf War into motion.
In the third hour, Iraq suffers as the U.N. pursues sanctions against the country while searching for illicit weapons during the 1990s, while Uday’s belligerence inspires Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel (Amr Waked) — the one genuinely capable person, seemingly, in his extended family circle — to turn against him, again drawing a tepid response from America. The last chapter — anticlimactic to say the least — opens with Saddam fleeing after the U.S. invasion in 2003, tracking him as he scrambles to avoid detection and clings to delusions about mounting a comeback.
Israeli actor Naor (whose credits include “Munich”) plays Saddam as all menace — his voice a low, thickly accented rumble. Beyond snapshots of his quarter-century of tyranny, though, there’s precious little that penetrates the surface, despite vague references to his stepfather slapping him around. What’s conspicuously lacking, meanwhile — given how shrewd Saddam was otherwise — is insight into the hubris that would cause him to bait the Americans. (Fear of looking weak to archenemy Iran and general arrogance were motivations, but viewers gain scant appreciation of those dynamics from what’s presented here.)
The one consistent thread, in fact, in producer/director/co-writer Alex Holmes’ approach is the resemblance to mob movies — including the emphasis on loyalty and family, the suspicion toward enemies and the abuse of inherited power by inept offspring. Apparently, Saddam was mostly just a more boring version of Tony Soprano, minus the therapist.
There’s even a moment when Saddam is confronted by his angry wife about infidelity and he dismisses her by saying, “Sajida, go shopping.”
Finally, a bit of advice about what to do when faced with a crisis that Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush could agree upon.