Images -- political and otherwise -- often have only the most tenuous relationship with reality. As it happened, that idea was a significant factor in several of the films I saw at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday.
The king-daddy of image manipulators? That would be late Pres. Ronald Reagan, the subject of Eugene Jarecki's perceptive and infuriating documentary, Reagan, which will debut on HBO in February. Reagan himself is heard warning about the deceptiveness of image-makers, especially those who work for presidents.
To Jarecki's credit, he offers a voice to Reagan's insiders and partisans -- from Pat Buchanan and Grover Norquist to George Schulz and James Baker to Reagan's sons, Ron and Michael. Thankfully, he also speaks to people with a more clear-eyed view of the damage that Reagan's policies and terms as president wrought. Mythologized as avuncular and wise, the Reagan that Jarecki shows in archival footage -- both from his terms as California governor and his first term as president -- reveal just how angry and mean-spirited Reagan could be.
And, ultimately, Jarecki gives the last word to the historians, who use the film's final section to debunk the myths that Norquist's Reagan Legacy Project are trying to entrench in history books. But Reagan's damage was done long ago -- and those who have swallowed the myth whole continue to propagate it, while attempting to deify him. Thankfully, this even-handed documentary may help take a little of the gloss off the legend.
Image was also at the center of Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double, based on the true story of Latif Yahia. A soldier in Saddam Hussein's army during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Latif is summoned to one of the royal palaces, where his mission is revealed: He is to serve as body double for Uday Hussein, Saddam's son.
Latif is played by Dominic Cooper (and not Dominic West, as I previously wrote). But it took me until mid-film before I realized that Cooper (Tamara Drewe, An Education) was playing both Latif and Uday. It's a dazzling performance in a film that explores the nature of evil -- and whether being a witness to evil without trying to stop it causes a permanent stain on one's soul.
But the film is also about the manipulation of image -- of Uday and Saddam, both of whom had doubles to replace them in public, to maintain an image of infallibility. In one chilling scene, Latif watches a palace tennis match, then realizes he is watching Saddam playing with one of his doubles.
Latif himself is an unwilling doppelganger, forced into the job by the feral, brutish Uday, who has him tortured (and threatens worse for Latif's family) as an answer to Latif's question, "What happens if I say no?" Latif winds up as Uday's shadow, forced to watch as Latif brutalizes, tortures, rapes and even murders those unfortunate enough to cross his path. Cooper makes us believe that we're watching two actors: one brooding and haunted, the other a vicious, giggly playboy with a high-pitched voice and a rabbity smile. Tamahori's film can be hard to watch but is never less than compelling.
Kevin Smith's Red State also plays with images.