Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Dictator (2012)


I already watched The Dictator prior to starting this blog. I didn't exactly care for it. Even so, of films released in the past year, The Dictator and Zero Dark Thirty probably gained the most media exposure of any movies that prominently feature Arab characters, the Middle East, or paper-thin parodies thereof such as this. So as much as it pained me to do it—and it did—I knew that if I wanted this blog to ever attain any real relevance, I had to grit my teeth for the onerous task of actually watching this jejune piece of shit again.

Compared to The Great Dictator

The Dictator quite clearly serves as a spiritual remake of Chaplin's classic comedy The Great Dictator. Both films have their hearts in the right place, satirizing those who want power for enslavement and personal gain rather than to better the world. They both have the same basic plot structure: an unjust ruler loses his fictional empire to the unwitting usurpation of a naïve lookalike; an opinionated, independent-spirited woman brings the main character through his arc, encouraging him to use his power for good. Both end with a rousing—albeit tonally incongruous—speech that almost reaches through the fourth wall, highlighting contemporary political injustices and exhorting the viewers to work to make a difference.

These similarities only make the chasm in quality between the films more obvious. I believe very strongly that The Great Dictator's satire and its unforgettable, lapidary closing speech helped motivate America—then at peace with Nazi Germany on paper—to fight the Axis powers in the name of justice and compassion. With a peroration that practically flings its viewers out the door with a motivation that could shame any commencement speaker, I really believe The Great Dictator ultimately changed the world for the better.

Even in Chaplin's eyes, one sees his genuine passion and certitude, something Baron Cohen fails to evoke.
In his attempted evocation of Chaplin's classic, Baron Cohen only betrays his relative lack of understanding of what makes The Great Dictator work. Where Chaplin imbues his beneficent protagonist Olmer with a kind heart and something meaningful to say behind his bumbling mannerisms, Baron Cohen relegates his body double character to a subplot, making both the main character and his doppelgänger provincial, sexually-immature idiots. Where Olmer learns through Hannah the importance of changing the world for good, neither of Baron Cohen's characters learn a thing.

Sacha Baron Cohen caps the film with a wonderfully trenchant oration. I just wish it took place in a better film.
Most importantly, while The Great Dictator emphasizes rectitude, fraternity, and compassion for one's fellow man, The Dictator uses the fictional country of Wadiya to demonize Arabs and Middle Eastern people left and right, painting every significant Wadiyan character as a barrier to progress. In contrast with Chaplin, Baron Cohen plays his third-act speech as satire (partly because unlike The Great Dictator, Baron Cohen aims the satire largely at America itself). Both speeches make the same anti-totalitarian point, but Baron Cohen's speech only adumbrates solutions; he pointedly stops short of actually encouraging people to love one another, even through the irony of the speech. Indeed, Chaplin's speech would absolutely not work in Baron Cohen's film. As a film, The Dictator does not want its viewers to "live by each other's happiness," nor does its message ask us "to do away… with hate and intolerance." Chaplin's orator comes from an oppressed people, representing the desires of men at their best. Baron Cohen gives the speech as an obdurate panjandrum whose words betray the nonexistence of his character's transformation. Indeed, even the very final shot subtly makes this point, where I part ways enormously with the message: even in a justly-ruled land, this film posits that not all of us can coexist.

Arabs in The Dictator

I don't have a problem with Sacha Baron Cohen. I enjoyed Borat. In fact, I respect him tremendously for his work in Da Ali G Show, using comedic personae to lure his interviewees into confessing their biases and bigotries. Even as a hired gun, I thought he did impressive work in Hugo and Talladega Nights. His upcoming performance as Freddie Mercury, the singularly greatest rock star who ever lived, has me tremendously excited.

In this interview with Terry Gross, Baron Cohen asserts that he didn't intend Arabs or Muslims as the target of the satire.

You know, and also we wanted to really make it clear particularly after the Arab spring that this was in no way a parody of Arabs. This was a parody of people who oppress Arabs and people who oppress other people around the world.

I believe him. I can see from the film that he intended to satirize dictators (as he said) and American attitudes of Arabs rather than the Arabs themselves. Aladeen clearly borrows most of his mannerisms from Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. The film builds its plot from Hussein's real-life proclivity for body doubles. At one point in the film, Aladeen specifically says, "I'm not an Arab," and he clearly doesn't adhere to Islam.

Even in light of what Aladeen says, the resulting film applies longstanding Arab stereotypes to every Wadiyan character on the screen, while at the same time making only a perfunctory effort to show American attitudes thereto. The satire fails in its intended target and falls right on the Arab people.

Although Wadiya sits south of the Middle East, the country sounds exactly like an Arab word. Its people look exactly like Arabs and embody several Arab stereotypes. The Wadiyan language looks exactly like made-up squiggles made to look like Arabic or Farsi. Aladeen, Wadiya, and the other Wadiyans look like a duck, walk like a duck, and quack like a duck. What else can we conclude?

The Arabs-as-terrorists stereotype right here.
Everything about Aladeen "winks and nudges" at existing Arab stereotypes: his misogyny, his bigotry, his licentiousness, his oil money, and so on. As for Wadiya, we only really see the desert, a nuclear base, and the palace…

I mean, really, look at this and try not to think "some Arab country" or Persia.
Indeed, one can scarcely watch the film without regarding Wadiyan characters as Arabs, allegorically if not literally.

Still, one might say that one character and one place does not make for a vilification of a people. That brings me to my next, most important point: Jason Mantzoukas' character Nadal.

Nadal looks just like everyone else… and he wants to blow up America.
For prominent Wadiyan characters, the film gives us Baron Cohen's two idiot characters, Kingsley's vindictive uncle, and Nadal. Unlike the others, "Nuclear" Nadal looks like a normal person, yet he secretly worked as a nuclear scientist for Wadiya and he wants his old job back. Despite that Aladeen had him exiled and nearly executed, Nadal becomes Aladeen's fully-complicit sidekick and voice of "reason," becoming as dedicated to getting his hands on a nuclear arsenal as his erstwhile liege.

Nadal's inclusion speaks to perhaps the most deleterious and enduring of post-2001 Arab stereotypes: any "normal" Arab you see on the street could conceivably sympathize with the enemy. The long-running, successful right-wing darling 24 became infamous for its use of this trope. NCIS—a perennial Nielsen juggernaut and currently the #1 show in America—invokes this stereotype nearly every time an Arab appears on-screen. While Arab terrorists indeed usually masquerade as "average Joes" to execute their atrocities, to assume the converse falsely, unjustly writes off 3.5 million peaceful, law-abiding Arab-Americans as possible sleepers. Common sense alone should tell most people that the vast majority of Arab-Americans pose the same threat to America as windmills did to Don Quixote. Judging Arab-Americans by the misdeeds of an extremely small subset thereof makes them—and in fact all other Americans—less safe, not more.

What about other citizens of Wadiya? We only see one scene featuring them significantly. Aladeen had exiled them all during his reign, and a run-in in a Wadiyan restaurant nearly ends in a mob of refugees beheading him. Of course they hate him, and for good reason. As with Nadal, he had them exiled and nearly killed. Still, aside from the major characters, this remains all we see of the Wadiyans: vindictive executioners in the making who brandish scimitars and meat cleavers in a Brooklyn restaurant.

Almost every Wadiyan in the film in one scene, getting ready to murder.
Next we come to my main point: main character Aladeen himself.

Our first figure shot of Aladeen, dressed much like Farr below.

At times, Aladeen seems most reminiscent of the oil sheik stereotype, played straight by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia and later for laughs by Jamie Farr's profligate, oblivious sheik of the Cannonball Run films. He even wears the refulgent white robes associated with moneyed Arabs.

Lebanese-American Jamie Farr plays the Sheik in Cannonball Run, a walking stereotype… however innocuous the intent.

Aladeen gags almost invariably involve an element of misogyny and anti-Semitism. Considering the barbaric practice of honor killings, the deplorable treatment of women by the Taliban, and the ongoing conflict in Israel, I found it irresponsible of Baron Cohen to play so strongly to these stereotypes through Aladeen. In reference to the sickening pre-Islamic Arab tribal practice of infanticide, we even see a gag where Aladeen prepares to discard a newborn baby girl.

"It's a girl… Where's the trash can?"
 Although I realize these attributes play into the satire, through the absence of any Arab/Wadiyan counterexamples, Baron Cohen unwittingly paints all of Aladeen's subjects with the same brush.

That Baron Cohen so heavily uses existing over-generalizations of Arabs makes Aladeen's additional invidious quirks all the more unsettling, like this song off the soundtrack that implies incest and pedophilia.

As impostors of tyrants go, Efawadh doesn't rank among the brightest.
It doesn't help that Baron Cohen piles even more stereotypes onto Aladeen's body double, Efawadh. Where The Great Dictator's Olmer served as the voice of reason within his own country, Efawadh only exists to reinforce the stereotypes that Aladeen doesn't cover, a technologically backward, sexually-stunted, goat-obsessed imbecile who understands nothing of the world beyond his farm.

Reilly as racist asshole Clayton.
To the film's credit, early on we get a scene of John C. Reilly as a racist bodyguard, satirizing American perceptions of Arabs. Says his character, "I hate Ayrabs… The blacks, the Jews, those blue tree-huggin' queers in Avatar. In fact, anyone from outside of America is technically an Ayrab." A brief but memorable helicopter scene and two news anchor scenes make similar points about American anxieties. I appreciated the intent, but the rest of the film undermined the meager amount of screen-time spent on making this point. The film simply contains too much of Baron Cohen playing to existing stereotypes and too few examples of ignorant American behavior for that aspect of the satire to work.

The Rest

Even without my revulsion at the treatment of Arabs in this film, I really simply didn't find it very funny. Borat worked in part because of Baron Cohen's performance, but Borat Sagdiyev's appearances on Da Ali G Show gave Baron Cohen a vaudeville-like arena in which to hone the character. Borat also had a versatility that allowed Baron Cohen to both act the stooge and allow others to play off him, such as Ken Davitian or the dozens of non-actors. The Dictator has Baron Cohen taking the comedic reins almost entirely. Aside from Mantzoukas playing off Baron Cohen as a beleaguered straight man, the script shuts out all but a few opportunities for other actors to show their chops.

Aasif Mandvi, a personal hero of mine, appears briefly in a rare exception.

Along with the lack of development of Aladeen relative to Borat, Baron Cohen's hogging of the gags serves to make the one joke of the one-joke comedy all the more glaring.

The film does have its good points. It has a great soundtrack (aside from the song I posted above). I found the subplot with Kingsley's character and several corrupt, rapacious business leaders a nice additional bit of satire. I won't deny that the film squeezed a few occasional chuckles out of me. I just wish it did a better job making its intended point.

To sum it all up, I applaud the apparent intent: to skewer dictators, ignorant Americans, and large corporations who prey on the common people. I simply don't think the humor or the satire succeeded in their goal. More than anything, I hope from this film Baron Cohen learns a salutary lesson about the way a poor script can create such a wide gulf between intent and result.

1 comment:

  1. You've hit the nail on the head--I couldn't disagree with your analysis of the film (ironically, when I saw it on Netflix on a whim, I actively avoided making connections with Chaplin's famous work). I'm particularly a fan of the "play anyone" Ben Kingsley, and I would even say I watched it purely to see him touching his finger tips together and scheming in the most entertaining manner possible. Sadly, that's only part of the movie that's memorable (maybe that's a good thing).

    On a final note, on Cohen--a very funny guy, no doubt. But I noticed you mentioned 'Borat', a funny film which, I'm sure you realize, actually demonstrates the same 'problems' (in other words, it's still a juvenile piece of shit) from the perspective of another demographic: Central Asians (not just Kazakhs). In fact, I'd argue 'Borat' is perhaps doubly as harmful to American and Western audiences--people who perhaps know or work alongside 'nondescript Arabs', but will perhaps never meet 'nondescript Central Asians'. Borat has become THE face of a 20-million-odd people (ironically, a face of the wrong race on top of everything else!), something really damaging in many ways I think you appreciate. More than one Kazakh athlete has had to tolerate hearing her or his national anthem replaced by the one from the film on the podium stand, and the film is, for all its satire of American bluster, is still the single most powerful (and damaging) reinforcement of a image of Kazakhs as anti-Semitic Central European savages, as oppose to what they are.

    Of course, it's still an entertaining film, but there are of course people who found this half-hearted Chaplin re-imagining entertaining too.

    That aside, another top-notch analysis, as per the norm on your blog.

    (Please excuse the funny name, last time I commented on Blogspot was for a Classical Rome Project.)