The Grating Dictator
A delightful surprise, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator (2012) delivers its jokes from the theatrical trailer—General Admiral Aladeen holds his own Olympics in order to win all of the gold medals by shooting his competitors in the middle of the race—in its first few minutes. This allows director Larry Charles to explore the film’s theme, doubling, via its absurdist comedic premise. Cohen has declared himself the greatest comic filmmaker working today, and I do believe he is correct. The film draws richly from the history of movie comedy, and does so with startling political precision. Most directly, the film reworks Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), the loss of the adjective perhaps best describing the trajectory from 1940s Hollywood to today. However, by traversing a far wider intertextual field than would a straightforward remake of Chaplin’s film, Charles and Cohen are able to demonstrate the vast differences between hating Hitler and hating Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il (to whom the film is ironically dedicated), and their present-day ilk.
Both Chaplin and Cohen construct a world of doubles, both linguistic and imagistic. In both films, word play indicates that what is spoken is not necessarily connected to the reality of events. In one of The Great Dictator’s best comedic bits, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin’s parody of Adolf Hitler) dictates not military decrees but a letter to his secretary. At first, he speaks a long-winded sentence in a garble of English and German. The woman types just a few words. Then, he speaks one word, and she proceeds to type an entire paragraph. In Cohen’s film, such play with language is a recurring joke, as Aladeen attempts to control every aspect of his subjects’ lives, failing miserably at all levels. For example, when he uses his name to describe a wide swath of things, he creates great confusion. When he decrees that the name means both “positive” and “negative,” he creates chaos in the medical community; when a doctor tells a patient that he is “HIV Aladeen,” the man does not know whether to smile in relief or cry in despair.
The crisis in meaning in The Dictator continues when Aladeen comes to the United States to deliver a speech at the United Nations. When Aladeen is kidnapped, but then escapes, he ends up in Little Wadiya, an immigrant neighborhood in New York City, hiding out from his would-be killers. The crisis between what appears to be and what actually is expresses itself at every level. Both sides of the sign on the door of a restaurant use Aladeen: “Welcome, we’re Aladeen” and “Sorry, we’re Aladeen.” The crisis continues beyond the linguistic: because Aladeen’s director of executions in Wadiya was a leader in the resistance, the many subjects Aladeen believed he sentenced to death are alive and well in New York City. One of these men gets suspicious of Aladeen, asking him what his real name is. Every time Aladeen makes up a fake name: “Ladies Washroom,” the man confronts him that such a name is obviously a fabrication.
Such play with the fictional and the real is a hallmark of Cohen’s tremendously important work in the mockumentary. His masterwork Borat (2006) uses the fictional Kazakh to pressure the behavior of real Americans, documentarized in such a way that American frailties are clearly exposed. For example, at a rodeo, Borat delivers a speech about how much he admires America’s war on terror. At first, the crowd cheers his patriotism. It is only after Borat has ratcheted up the rhetoric to absurd proportions (he speaks of murdering Iraqi babies) that the crowd begins to stop cheering and suspect that they’ve been had.
A fully fictional film, The Dictator replaces this mockumentary interrogation of the real with an investigation into the split subjectivity of fiction cinema, expressed through Sacha Baron Cohen’s virtuosic performance as both Aladeen and his double. The film thus extends the linguistic play into the visual register, using the cinematic motif of mirroring. This of course revises the famous set-up of The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin plays both Adolf Hitler as well as his traditional tramp, this time a Jewish barber who lives in the ghetto. However, The Dictator takes an unexpected turn: whereas Chaplin’s film focuses on mirroring via a central female protagonist, Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber’s love interest in the ghetto, Aladeen’s love interest Zoey (Anna Farris) serves to humanize the dictator by teaching him how to love. Despite the famous virtuosic performances by Chaplin in The Great Dictator (the pantomime in which he plays with a balloon version of the Earth; the final speech in which the barber envisions a future without Nazism), it is Hannah who undergoes the film’s developmental character arc. She begins the film cynical and violent toward the Nazis. However, in the film’s central scene, the barber gives Hannah a shave, transforming her into a beautiful woman, shocking her when she looks at herself in the mirror. As the barber gives the film’s final speech, she magically hears his voice from far away in Nazi-occupied Austria.
For its part, The Dictator revisits the gendered nature of mirroring and doubling. Late in the film, Aladeen confronts his double in front of a mirror, the loss of his absurd beard serving as the marker of the dictator’s newly found humanity. This humanity is unlocked by his love interest, Zoey, a radical feminist who manages a non-corporate grocery collective in New York City’s version of a Polish ghetto, Brooklyn. Whereas Chaplin shaves Hannah absentmindedly, Aladeen is shocked that Zooey does not shave her armpits, demanding that she use Nair and a razor once in a while. Whereas the Tramp transforms Hannah, it is Zoey who teaches Aladeen how to recapture his humanity. In The Dictator’s best comedic bit, Zoey refuses to have sex with the coddled but lonely Aladeen (he has had sex with virtually everyone, from Megan Fox to Oprah Winfrey to Arnold Schwartzenegger), and yet he still must cuddle his pillow alone. Zoey takes Aladeen into a back room and teaches him to masturbate through the closed door. At first, Aladeen is outraged, but then comes to discover the pleasures of onanism. Hysterically and politically astutely, Charles intercuts the saccharine scene from Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994) in which the afflicted child hero learns to run, shedding his metal braces.
The Dictator guts the conservative politics of popular American cinema. In Forrest Gump, the childish Tom Hanks treats all American political encounters (from JFK to George Wallace) as equivalent. In The Dictator, the child-like Aladeen comes to discover via his love for Zoey that he can love his country without executing everyone who does not agree with him. The Dictator also ends with a speech, as Aladeen rips up the corporate constitution drawn for his country by Chinese oil exploiters, suggesting that a different sort of democracy is possible. Opposed to Charlie Chaplin, he suggests that if the United States embraced dictatorship, they could live in a country in which 1% of the population controlled all of the wealth. In short, he points out astutely that democracy controlled by corporate elites might be quite similar to right-wing dictatorships, something the Frankfurt School warned us about at the very same time Charlie Chaplin was using popular cinema to wage war against Fascism. In making a film as important and powerful as Chaplin’s, perhaps the seemingly grating Sacha Baron Cohen has earned back the missing adjective.
– Walter Metz