Judge Mike Rubino was hoping this was another VH1 reality series.
He built an empire on the blood of a nation.
When it comes to historical dramatizations, you, as a viewer, can go one of two routes: the reliably cheesy and poorly produced segments of History Channel documentaries, or the finely crafted and star-studded HBO mini-series. Yeah, let's stick with the latter. House of Saddam, much like the award-winning John Adams, is a well-tuned piece of historic drama; the big difference being this new four-part series is about one of the most infamous dictators of the last twenty years.
Facts of the Case
House of Saddam focuses on the complex rise and fall of the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (Yigal Naor, Rendition). The series focuses not only on the political climate of the Middle East, but also the tense atmosphere within the Saddam family.
Each episode of the four-part series focuses on a different decade in Saddam's reign. Part One begins in 1979, with Saddam assuming power and eventually going to war with Iran. Part Two, set in 1988, finds Iraq on the brink of war with Kuwait and its defeat in the first Gulf War. Part Three revolves around the 1995 United Nations weapon inspections, and a plot with the CIA to remove Saddam from power. The fourth and final part deals with the build-up to the current Iraq War in 2003 against coalition forces, and Saddam's eventual capture and execution.
House of Saddam is a surprisingly even-tempered look at a heinous dictator and his dysfunctional family. Saddam is portrayed as both a vicious tyrant and a misunderstood patriot. He is shown at the height of his power and the depths to which he's forced to retreat (quite literally, considering that he spends his final weeks hovering around a foxhole).
It's this even keel, however, that makes the series somewhat different from what was initially expected of it. The series quite literally focuses on the "house" of Saddam, introducing all of the key players—his cousins, brother-in-laws, wives, and children—who would surround him during his tenure. Saddam valued loyalty above all else, and was constantly filling his cabinet with relatives (he also had no qualms about killing them if they screwed up). While House of Saddam spends plenty of time exploring the complex character that was Mr. Hussein, and his often bi-polar relationship with his family, the show ultimately feels slightly confined. Little time is spent on the major wars that Iraq was involved in, and essentially all establishing shots and major external events are portrayed through newsreel footage.
That's not to say that I was expecting this mini-series to have the breadth or scope of John Adams. This is a different beast entirely; it's much more of a historical character study than anything else. Saddam Hussein and his family are portrayed by strong actors, including Yigal Naor, Uri Gavriel (The Kingdom), and Shohreh Aghdashloo (who you may remember from Season 4 of 24). It was the superb acting that kept me interested in the characters and in the series.
Characters aside, House of Saddam also benefits from that HBO big-budget sheen. The sets seem massive and detailed, and the direction by Alex Holmes and Jim O'Hanlon is quite good. Being made for television, the video and sound quality felt accurate and pristine in standard def. The picture was sharp as can be for the HBO-produced segments; although, I couldn't help but feel that the establishing shots taken from early '90s videotape were a bit odd stylistically. The audio side of things is strong as well, with a nice mix of Middle Eastern tunes and a score by Samuel Sim, all in Dolby 5.1 surround sound.
This two-disc set features just one measly extra: a brief "in-depth" featurette called The Fate of a Dynasty. It's basically a promotional video featuring folks involved with the mini-series talking about the production's historical accuracy. It sounds as if the writers and producers had a great deal of access to some pretty rare information, I just wish there had been a little more meat to this video.
House of Saddam is another high caliber HBO historical mini-series filled with a great cast. It provides a more complex portrait of the infamous dictator, while adhering to an interesting chronological presentation. At times it feels like the series is glossing over a lot of important historical events in favor of more character development, but it's all so engrossing that I didn't mind so much.
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