There's something oppressive and overlong about "House of Saddam," HBO's new 4-hour miniseries. And that is fitting for a drama that follows Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from the day he seized power in 1979 to his death by hanging in 2006. The style of the telling - heavy and, ultimately, hollow - perfectly matches the substance of the story.
But of course that lugubrious style makes "House of Saddam" a slog, even while it is precisely paced and seamlessly directed. The miniseries, which airs in two parts, this Sunday and next Sunday at 9 p.m., avoids the pitfalls of most TV biopics, which skip ludicrously from big moment to big moment. But it repeatedly asks viewers to trudge through static, angst-filled sequences in which Hussein, his family, and his generals seethe with aggression, betrayal, and self-destruction. None of the many murders in the miniseries shock; the script marches toward each like the grim reaper in lead shoes.
Oddly enough, the model for the miniseries, which HBO coproduced with the BBC, appears to be "The Godfather," with the Husseins as a loyalty-impaired version of the Corleones. Directors Alex Holmes and Jim O'Hanlon open "House of Saddam" at a lavish birthday party for one of Hussein's daughters, while Hussein (Igal Naor) meets in a backroom with Iraqi president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and warns him to resign. The vibe is very "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," as Hussein's inexpressive mien belies his violent intentions. Often seen with a fat cigar in his mouth, Hussein is the don to his sons and sons-in-law, who jockey for position. As the years pass, son Uday (Philip Arditti) emerges as the hot-headed, violent Sonny Corleone type.
"House of Saddam" dwells on the leering, psychotic demeanor of the Hussein family and inner-circle members such as Ali Hassan Al Majid ("Chemical Ali") more than it reveals atrocities and battles. There are shootings and a rape, as well as the passing ticker tape of history with peripheral references to the United States courtesy of news clips; but in between events, the movie lingers long and hard on the faces of Hussein and his men and the aura of evil around them. That's not a bad approach, but then the script and the acting need to be psychologically sophisticated enough to reward all the attention. They aren't.
As Hussein, Naor is a lump of clay with an ego and a mustache. He successfully evokes fear, but nothing more specific. He's a quiet, unvarying, deadly storm moving through the Middle East, but his development and his personal motives are left unexplained, even when he is shown writing the Koran with his own blood as ink. His mantra is "There will be no retreat," and he is phobic about the appearance of vulnerability. After al-Bakr steps down, and resisters are murdered, Hussein needlessly kills a friend, noting, "The man who can sacrifice even his best friend is a man without weakness." The script should have given Naor, and us, richer internal nuances to ponder.
The sparks do fly in a pair of performances, by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Hussein's first wife and Izabella Telezynska as his mother. With her terrifying and terrified eyes, Aghdashloo is riveting, and Telezynska adds fire as the only person who is able to cow Hussein. But in "House of Saddam," the women are secondary to the men and their generalized power madness. Despite four hours of focus, what exactly pushed Hussein to climb to the top, and fall through to the bottom, remains vague.