Latif Yahia’s life is the kind books are written about and subsequently adapted into movies. The Iraqi man wrote about the autobiographical thorn in his side: Uday Hussein, Saddam’s sadistic son killed by U.S. forces in 2003. Yahia thickened the plot by revealing his story as the body double for Uday, published that same year. The 2011 film “The Devil’s Double” is based on the book but unnecessarily stretches the truth of an already crazy story.
The adaptation was helmed by New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, who slipped on a few action flops, like a sequel that should’ve never seen the light of day, “XXX: State of the Union.” Yet he deftly handled David Mamet’s screenplay “The Edge,” putting Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, and Bart the Bear in a fight to the finish.
Tamahori’s stellar slice of the James Bond franchise, “Die Another Day,” was the highest-grossing Bond film at the time. He’s a director who generously gives actors space to do their thing, and that’s what he did for Dominic Cooper in “The Devil’s Double.” Cooper was the adaptation’s next smart move, as he continues a consistently unusual string of strong roles from “The History Boys,” “Mamma Mia,” as Howard Stark in “Captain America,” and the dual role of Uday Hussein/Latif Yahia.
“The Devil’s Double” received critical acclaim for the bipolar double whammy Cooper pulls off within Tamahori’s stylistic filmmaking. Seeing the film without knowing the story of Latif Yahia provides an outrageous expose of the psychopath Uday was. It lures us into the moralistic triumph of Yahia’s escape from the clutches of Hussein’s Iraqi empire. The let-down comes in discovering that some of the film’s pivotal moments are not biographically extracted from the book.
(Spoiler Alert) In the film’s climatic revenge scene, Yahia attempts to assassinate Uday but ends up symbolically assassinating his groin. While there was an assassination attempt on Uday in 1996, leaving him disabled, there is no factual claim that Yahia pulled the trigger. Here the book’s truth is stretched to bring symbolic closure, but is this necessary for a film that opened at Sundance Film Festival? Tamahori could have still achieved a powerful film and Dominic Cooper an award-worthy performance without glazing the truth in screenwriting laziness.
“The Devil’s Double” is marketed as an art house film, with a stylized realism too grotesque for the mainstream. So when the film’s B-line love story emerges, playing off what was just an incident in Yahia’s book, the unnecessary Hollywoodizing gets layered a bit thick. Books adapted for the screen get away with taking liberties due to the constraints of attention spans in a two-hour window. Although this is an adaptation of a real life that becomes poetic speculation outside of historical context, catering to a mainstream audience it won’t reach.
It is not a film presented as an alternate history, a la Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” a “what if” film that rewrites major events. It’s also not an “inspired” type of film like “Green Zone,” which draws fictional inspiration from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction book on the Iraq War. “The Devil’s Double” almost enters Oliver Stone territory by taking history packaged as actual events but then manipulating the details to obtain dramatic catharsis. The danger in this is that many people don’t look beyond the film in the pursuit of truth, and Yahia’s story will be falsely mythologized.