Directed by Larry Charles
Paramount Pictures, 2012
A stand-up comedian I know once said that when it comes to combining politics with comedy, “First get them laughing and when their mouths are open — slip your message in.” Across the world, millions are leaving Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator repeating jokes as if chewing holy wafers from the High Church of Comedy. As the 1% send the police to beat down the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement; Cohen follows Charlie Chaplin, who in 1940, as fascism marched across the world, released The Great Dictator to liberate us with laughter.
Separated by 72 years, 2012’s The Dictator and 1940’s The Great Dictator share the same goals of ridiculing the powerful, freeing us from our fear of them and from our own self-righteousness. As satires, they both use exaggeration, parody and juxtaposition to expose the greedy stupidity of the ruling class. And both turn the mirror of satire on the audience as well.
Both films take real dictators and combine them into a Mr. Potato Head like character who embodies their worst excesses. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator transformed Hitler into Adenoid Hynkel, the screaming tyrant of fictional Tomainia. Cohen condensed an array of Middle East dictators, including Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, into Admiral General Aladeen, ruler of the oil rich, North African nation of Wadiya. In the film, he comes to New York to rant against democracy at the United Nations but is betrayed and nearly killed by his Uncle Tamir (played by Ben Kingsley). Afterwards, Aladeen lives anonymously in the urban purgatory of Brooklyn until he can return to power before his body-double makes a speech at the United Nations, written by Tamir, that will democratize Wadiya so Tamir can sell its oil to multinational companies.
Dictators are perfect targets for satire. Egos inflated by the hot air of whispering aides they are blinded by power. They live in a bubble of pride and guard against any criticism that could pop it by insulting or killing those who question them. In The Great Dictator, when Hynkel falls down the stairs, he slaps his general and rips off his medals. In The Dictator, Aladeen yells at his nuclear scientist for not making a “pointy” missile, and after the scientist questions his intellect, he gives a quick throat-cut hand signal to have the scientist killed. (Wherever he goes, Aladeen’s throat-cut signal disappears people at random.)
Sigmund Freud wrote in his 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that “the joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.” Cohen, and Chaplin before him, help our laughter shatter the ideology that made pleasure of the subversive imagination “inaccessible.”
The first ideology attacked in both films is the reactionary temperament of dictators. Rulers of totalitarian states must appear more religious, devoted, strong, intelligent or royal than anyone else in order to justify their rule. It’s exactly this “evidence” that comedians seize on. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin lampooned Hitler’s hysterical speeches about German nationalism by speaking in a kind of German gibberish that had no meaning whatsoever. During his rule of Libya, Qaddafi had an all-female Amazonian Guard, which Cohen recycled as machine-gun-toting cheerleaders who service Aladeen.
The second ideology that Cohen confronts head-on is the liberal tendency to be painfully politically correct, especially when it comes to minorities — buying into stereotypes or making jokes about those who are different are anathema. When Aladeen stumbles into the Free Earth Collective store, Brooklyn activist Zoey (played by Anna Harris) hires him on the spot. Starry-eyed and eager to disavow her whiteness, she jokes that “she hasn’t had a white boyfriend since college.” She embodies the extreme of Leftist elitism, and her speech is peppered with endless attempts to include and defer to the oppressed. The store is staffed with war refugees, including a Honduran woman whose prosthetic hooks punch holes in the bags of organic fair trade coffee.
Aladeen insults Zoey, her ideals and the staff but she can’t understand him as anything other than a victim. In a perverse reversal, Cohen encouraged viewers to use Aladeen to vent frustration with the dogmatic Leftism. After Zoey loses the contract to cater the hotel where Tamir will use the body double to democratize Wadiya, Aladeen whips her store into shape. The audience howled as he electrically tortured a dreadlocked shoplifter.
But it was at the end that Cohen once again overlapped with Chaplin, who in The Great Dictator passionately spoke on defending liberty against fascism. Cohen does the same in The Dictator, but with a satirical twist. After Aladeen successfully gets the Free Earth Collective’s catering contract with the hotel renewed and he overtakes his body double, he gives a speech to the United Nations ripping democracy and praising dictatorship: “Imagine a country where 1% of the people controlled most of the wealth and leaders wage war against the wrong country for trumped-up reasons.”
In the theater, a strange joy shocked us and I started clapping. So did others. Cohen’s satire finally hit home. We are not as free as we imagine. The red, white and blue of American ideology fell from our eyes as he said, “Imagine a country whose prisons are filled with one racial group.”
“Preach on brother” someone yelled. We clapped louder and louder, knowing we weren’t in a movie anymore. We were in church and the spirit had come. It was comedy that broke through so much ideology, it became revelation.