Friday, July 26, 2013

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012; dir. Larry Charles) observes few boundaries of political or moral correctness.  Its satiric story of a middle-eastern dictator who comes to New York to address the United Nations takes middle eastern politics and Muslim culture as its main targets—there is no doubt about this. In the course of this exercise, Dictator levels its aim at Jews, African Americans, Asians, middle-class white America, women, feminists, and probably other groups and categories I haven’t thought of yet.  The main character, Admiral General Aladeen Aladeen (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an utterly ruthless dictator who orders anyone who disagrees with him executed.  He hates Jews, women, and anyone who opposes him.  The wealth of his nation, Wadiya, what there is of it, goes towards maintenance of his opulent palace and lifestyle.  His nation is rich in oil, but because he promised his father that he would never sell it to outsiders, he remains true to that promise (one of the only promises he keeps).  His dying father appointed him dictator despite the older brother (Ben Kingsley) who was first in line of succession.  His brother is constantly plotting to assassinate or overthrow him so he can take control of the country and sell its oil resources to foreign oil interests (BP, Exxon, and so on).  

As with Cohen’s two previous films—Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), both directed by Larry Charles—this one skirts a fine line between satire and intolerance.  Is it attacking western stereotypes about the Muslim world, or exploiting them for comedy?  It’s both, I think, and these opposites aren’t always compatible.  Cohen rarely misses the opportunity for an outrageously inappropriate joke: when he delivers a baby at the food collective, he is genuinely moved, yet when he sees that the baby is a girl, he wants to throw it out with the trash.  When his new wife tells him that she is pregnant, he asks her whether the child will be “a boy or an abortion.”

In the course of this film, Aladeen falls in love with the owner of an organic food collective—she’s whole earth in every way, Jewish, and feminist—everything he hates.  He declares at the UN, after he sees her watching him, that he will restore real democracy to his country and not sell out to international oil conglomerates.  Yet the film makes clear, in the typical eye-winking, ear-pulling way of Cohen, that he’s not really serious.

While Arabic culture and politics suffer the main brunt of this film’s satiric attack, in his speech to the UN, Aladeenn outlines what he believes are the benefits dictatorships can bring—and they are all practices and acts that have characterized American democracy over the last 25 years.  The point is not to let Arabic culture off the hook, but to make clear that U. S. capitalism is guilty of sins and injustices of its own. 

Cohen may seek to soften somewhat the depravity that Aladeen represents by portraying him as an inept, incompetent, ignorant, and not very smart buffoon (every time he orders someone executed, his executioner helps the condemned victim escape to a Wadiyan refugee community in New York) who can’t open his mouth without making outrageous and offensive statements.  This in part may be a nod to another film called The Great Dictator (1940; dir. Charlie Chaplain) with Charlie Chaplain playing a clear parody of Hitler.  But Chaplain’s political and humanistic message in his film isn’t as compromised as it is in this one.

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