News & Politics

'The Dictator': Sacha Baron Cohen Tries to Emulate Charlie Chaplin

The modern comedian's latest spoof and the classic "Great Dictator" share the same goal of ridiculing the powerful.

SPOILER ALERT: This review includes information about the ending of The Dictator,as well as other details. 

A friend who performs stand-up said of politics in 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 percent send the police to beat down the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, Cohen follows Charlie Chaplin, who released The Great Dictator to liberate us with laughter as fascism marched across the world in 1940.

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 use exaggeration, parody, juxtaposition, double entendre to expose the greedy stupidity of the ruling classes. They reverse the direction of shame. Instead of people cringing in the police spotlight, the “emperor” stands naked in the public gaze. And both comedians turn the mirror of satire on us. 

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 Middle East dictators into Admiral General Aladeen, ruler of the oil-rich North African nation of Wadiya. In the film, Aladeen comes to New York to rant against democracy at the UN but is betrayed and nearly killed by his uncle Tamir, played by Ben Kingsley. Afterward, Aladeen lives anonymously in the urban purgatory of Brooklyn until he can return to power before his body-double makes a speech at the UN, 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 or the applause of a captive audience, they are blinded by power to how people really feel about them. They live in a bubble of pride and guard against criticism that could pop it by insulting or killing anyone who questions them. In The Great Dictator, Hynkel falls down the stairs. When he rises 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 neck-cut hand signal to have the scientist killed. Whenever Aladeen makes his neck-cut signal, people disappear at random.  

Dictators are often portrayed as walking ids, a mass of instinctive drives for power, sex and love. And unchecked by law, they devour lives. Cohen’s Aladeen is like a satiric Arab Frankenstein, every caricature of the Arab Muslim man is stitched together and given a zap of comedic electricity. He jokes of rape camps, spends vast amount of money on gaudy luxury, plays a beheading video game a la Daniel Pearl. Later in New York, he scoffs at his would-be American torturer for using an outdated anal knife that doesn’t have a “splatter-guard."   

The queasy but loud laughs I heard in the audience were the psychological pressure release of pleasure from ideology. Sigmund Freud wrote in his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that “the joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.” Cohen, like Chaplin before him, helps our laughter shatter the ideology that made pleasure of the subversive imagination “inaccessible.” 

The first ideology attacked in both films is the reactionary one of dictators. Rulers of totalitarian states must appear more religious, devoted, strong, intelligent or royal than anyone else to justify their rule. It’s exactly this “evidence” that comedians seize on. In The Great Dictator Chaplin lampooned Hitler’s hysterical speeches about Germany by speaking a kind of German gibberish that had no meaning whatsoever. Former dictator of Libya, General Muammar Gaddafi, had an all-female Amazonian Guard, which Cohen recycled as machine gun-toting cheerleaders who service Aladeen. 

The second ideology attacked is the liberal one in which we don’t make fun of minorities, purify ourselves of artificial ideas and embrace difference. Less so with Chaplin than Cohen who turns the mirror of satire back at the progressive audience. When Aladeen stumbles into the Free Earth Collective store, Brooklyn activist Zoey (Anna Faris) hires him. He is horrified by her hairy armpits. Starry-eyed and eager to disavow her whiteness, Zoey jokes that “she hasn’t had a white boyfriend since college.” She embodies the extreme of leftist elitism whose speech is an endless list of inclusion and deference to the oppressed. The store is staffed with war refugees like the Honduran woman, hands blown off, with prosthetic hooks that always rip the coffee bags apart. 

Aladeen mercilessly insults Zoey and her ideals and the staff but she can’t understand him except as a victim. It's a critique of the liberal pity of the Other. And I sensed the audience wasn’t just laughing at Aladeen but at ourselves. In a perverse reversal, Cohen encourages us to use Aladeen to vent frustration with the sometimes dogmatic values of horizontality. After Zoey loses the contract to cater the hotel where Tamir will use the body double to democratize Wadiya, Aladeen maniacally whips her store into shape.

But it's at the end of the film where Cohen once again overlaps with Chaplin, who in The Great Dictator passionately spoke on defending liberty against fascism. Cohen does the same in The Dictator. Having gotten the Free Earth Collective its contract and overtaken his body double, he gives the UN speech ripping democracy and praising dictatorship: “Imagine a country where 1 percent 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, 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.   

 

Nicholas Powers is an assistant professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. His book of poetry, "Theater of War" was published by Upset Press in 2004. He has written for the Village Voice and the Indypendent.