The story of Latif Yahia is an understandably compelling one. Forced against his will to serve as a body double for Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, throughout the Gulf War, Latif was both a first-hand witness to Uday’s outlandish behavior and a decoy for his would-be assassins. The elements of tyranny, treachery, and temptation are all there in one true-life package, but in the hands of director Lee Tamahori, The Devil’s Double plays more like a melodrama than a docudrama.
Our lead times two is Dominic Cooper (Captain America’s Howard Stark), playing Latif as scowling doppelganger and Uday as a coke-snorting, gun-toting, stogie-chomping, schoolgirl-snatching, squeaky-voiced megalomaniac. He is effectively Henry Hill to his own Tony Montana, invited to help himself to a life of luxury without remotely rivaling his master’s psychopathic tendencies. While there’s little doubt that Uday wasn’t every bit as exaggerated off-screen as he is portrayed here, Cooper’s performance as him walks a fine line between accurately flamboyant and distractingly so.
In the strictest sense of how dangerous things will get for Latif and how demented Uday will reveal himself to be, Double holds one’s interest, but when it’s not growing increasingly monotonous in its displays of excess, it tends to be either overwrought, such as when Uday has his way with a newlywed bride and she proceeds to take her own life before the whole wedding party, or just plain ugly -- Uday’s statutory rape of an intoxicated teenager is only interrupted by his grisly dispatching of an irritating friend of the family.
These brutal moments are coated in every bit the same gloss as the rest of the film, and in a greater sense, the film itself gives real-life misery a Hollywood polish. Latif is noble enough to refuse every woman except for Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier), but naturally, she’s Uday’s favorite, and so the same old tired love-triangle machinations play out in the film’s second half. Sagnier’s performance is much like Cooper’s as Latif, straddling the line between too scared to act out and too stoic to act at all, and her unnervingly plastic complexion reflects Uday’s garish notions of beauty as much as the movie’s larger sense of detachment.
The film ends on its greatest note of embellishment, trying to deliver some semblance of justice where the true story could provide none. It’s the type of sequence where an act of mercy toward a supporting character is reciprocated with corny precision, a climax that tries to compromise between the reality of Uday not being killed until 2003 and a story which takes place in the early ‘90s and otherwise offers no reprieve from a series of truly awful incidents. The Devil’s Double is about a wicked man doing wicked things, and a scared man doing things he was never actually able to do. He survived, and it seems that the audience is merely asked to follow suit.