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Saddam Hussein, meet Tony Soprano

TELEVISION CRITIC

It is a wide world, I know, and there are surely people in it more receptive than myself to the idea of a four-hour miniseries about Saddam Hussein. That seems a long time to spend with the man. (John Adams got eight-plus hours earlier this year, but he was a Great American and lived to be 90.) And there is Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming 257-minute Che Guevara biopic, but that has Benicio Del Toro in it, at least, and a big-screen budget. “House of Saddam,” which begins Sunday on HBO, is above average as docudramas go, but as docudramas go, “above average” is still something short of essential.

The film starts, like “The Godfather,” with a party -- a seventh-birthday party for Hussein’s daughter -- at which then-Deputy President Saddam Hussein (Igal Naor) makes Iraq’s president an offer he cannot refuse: retirement. Hussein takes power, executes a chunk of the congress and personally puts a bullet in the head of his best pal just to prove himself a tough customer. “The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness,” he tells his wife. He does this for Iraq, sort of, in whose glory he glories, but he has increasing trouble telling himself and his country apart. He looks moodily out the window, leans heavily over his desk. He doesn’t have much fun.

This is Hussein as Soprano. Certainly, as pictured here, Tony S. and S. Hussein would have had things to say to each other -- about difficult children and controlling mothers (“Mama, what do you want in the name of Allah?” Hussein asks, looking hangdog), about the heaviness of the crown-wearing head and the uses of fear. The president rules by intimidation. He’s like Billy Mumy in that “Twilight Zone” episode, wishing everyone into the cornfield. And so nobody around him has much fun, either, except older son Uday (Philip Arditti), who’s crazy. Uday snorts cocaine, rapes a waitress, kills a man with a cane. This makes Papa mad: “You think violence is a pastime? It is a tool! What are we? Barbarians?”

“House of Saddam” may have been conceived as a family drama, and that’s interesting as far as it goes -- which is really only as far as you can tolerate the family. There is enough outside matter to orient us historically, yet perhaps not enough context to see the subject whole.

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Before Hussein took over the government -- which is where we meet him, in 1979 -- and went to war with Iran and alienated the West and attacked the Kurds and so on, he was known as a successful reformer, establishing literacy programs, compulsory education and an improved healthcare system. “House of Saddam” thoroughly charts his fall from power to powerlessness, but less successfully catches the accompanying fall, from efficient politician to maker of consistently bad decisions.

If “House of Saddam” is meant to remind us that the Iraqi president was a “bad guy,” in one of the American president’s favorite constructions, job well done. But co-writer, co-director and executive producer Alex Holmes, who spent three years researching the film and who interviewed people who knew Hussein, was clearly after something more. He has the facts. But facts are not drama -- nor are “dramatic scenes,” for that matter -- and for all the time it spends on Hussein, the film doesn’t communicate a theory of the man inside the monster that feels exciting, revelatory or useful.

It’s not a disaster. There are well-written and well-mounted scenes and some good performances (I especially liked Shohreh Aghdashloo as Hussein’s first wife, Sajida, and Said Amadis, as her brother Adnan, one of Hussein’s trusted advisors until he has him blown up in a helicopter). It is not without suspense. But even at four hours, “House of Saddam” feels incomplete and scattered -- a lessened, not a heightened reality.

The series is best -- or perhaps I just mean that Naor is at his best -- at the beginning, when Hussein is still full of energy, and at the end, when he’s hiding from American troops in the countryside -- his “King Lear” phase, in which he becomes, nearly, for a moment, an ordinary man. (He cooks, he fishes, he talks to the neighbor boy.) For much of what passes in between, the president is merely dull and thuggish, occasionally roused to a juvenile charm or a childish rage: Tony Soprano qualities. They grew tiresome on that character as well.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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‘House of Saddam’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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