On Culture: The Dictator (review)

Dear Leader, now in theaters.

In which I give my opinion on a recent comedy film. Spoilers follow, sort of.

Yesterday I managed to catch the rather timely new satire by Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator. The timeliness of the film was underscored by the contents of the opening montage; among the clips is what I recognized as Obama’s words before the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in January. The film is seemingly a send-up of some of the themes that have animated our last decade; terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and even the Arab Spring.

Unlike Cohen’s previous films, The Dictator dispenses with the ambush/fuck around with people aspect that drove the plots of both Borat and Bruno, and this is arguably for the better. First this is simply because the conceit was already wearing old in Bruno, and certainly would have come off as completely stale in this film, but also because the character that holds the plot of The Dictator together, Admiral General Aladeen, works better as a fully scripted character than simply as a 1 sided foil to the shocked reactions of average Americans.

So, to the plot, then. The film begins with Aladeen, the leader of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, fending off western inspectors concerned about its attempts to develop nuclear weapons (sound familiar?) Aladeen, after being shown the rather incompetent nuclear program, is told that he must speak before the United Nations to avoid the passing of a resolution authorizing western force against Wadiya.

Here I must comment on the excellence of Cohen’s creation, Aladeen. The character, a seeming amalgam of various eccentric autocrats of the past quarter century, from Muammar Gaddafi to Kim-Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. Add to that a dash of the stupidity that Cohen seems to write into all of his characters, and you have the makings of a nice satirical centerpiece.

The same can’t be said for the character of Zoey, the manager of a stereotypical green-hippy commune that Aladeen comes across in New York after becoming the victim of a scheme by a supposedly trustworthy aide. The character comes off more as a foil of Aladeen’s casual racist, anti-Semitic misogyny than as something serving a full-fledged narrative piece in the film.

Despite that, however, what I really like in the film are some of its sharper points of satire, like finding out that all of the people Aladeen ordered executed were actually spared by the executioner, instead ending up in a corner of New York called “Little Wadiya.” Or the film’s treatment of bringing “democracy” to the country; first it’s simply cover for oil companies to exploit the region, then Aladeen seems to actually convert to the virtues of free elections, only to see the vote conducted in a manner that’s anything but free or fair.

That last bit leads me to see the film partly as a satire of the Arab Spring, in addition to its obvious target of middle eastern autocrats. While some parts of the film, true to Cohen’s punch-the-viewer-in-the-face style, are tastelessly crude, The Dictator is still worth the price of admission, if dark, topical satire is the sort of thing you like.

Now if this were a newspaper review, I’d give this film a rating out of 5 stars and give a few notes on content, but this is my own blog so I don’t play that way. Just kidding.

3 out of 5 stars. The Dictator is a Sacha Baron Cohen film that is rated “R”. Taking your pre-teen to see it makes you the bad parent, not the studio the bad actor.


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