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'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.

Photo Credit: Paramount


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.” 

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