The infamous actor, writer and comedic genius Sacha Baron Cohen is not known for being politically correct, or even politically sensitive, but one cannot deny: he is politically savvy. Although his latest film, The Dictator, is a culturally off at times, it also touches upon current events and ideas that one just doesn’t get in most comedies today, not only wittily parodying events and people in the Middle East but America as well. To someone uninformed about the going-ons in Arabia, some jokes may go unnoticed but, stereotyping aside, might I daresay that Baron Cohen, here known as General Admiral Al-Adeen, created a hilarious and thought-provoking comedy?
The plot, as other reviewers remarked, exists, unlike other Baron Cohen films: Admiral Al-Adeen is a spoiled bufoon of a dictator (a cross between Saddam in looks, Gaddafhi in flamboyish spirit; he even has a pack of tough-yet-buxom bodygaurds a la the late dictator) who goes to New York City to address United Nations concerns over his nuclear program (a reference to Iran’s controversial nuclear project). After he gets hoodwinked out of his role as supreme dictator, he conspires (like any good dictator) with Nadal, former head of his nuclear program, and naive, crunchy-hippy Zoe, who runs a garden commune and who couldn’t be more unlike Al-Adeen than oil and water, to regain his post.
I admire Baron Cohen for completely immersing himself in the characters he creates, both on and off set. I was slightly wary, before seeing the film, just how much Arabs would be stereotyped in the film; after all, Al-Adeen’s palace in fictional Wadiya looks like a solid-gold version of the palace in Aladdin, which is generally what I find people (at least people my age) refer to when they think of the Middle East. There are some cultural mishaps, such as the use of an Amr Diab song at the beginning of the film which my Egyptian friend who I was watching the film with told me was “sad and inappropriate for the movie,” but which was obviously used simply because it was Arabic, and the use later on of distinctly-Punjabi sounding songs. The Wadiyan alphabet appears to be more like Indian Sanskrit than the Arabic alphabet. Geography lesson: India is not the Middle East, nor are the two cultures remotely the same, but apparently in America the two are considered alike.
John C. Reilly’s security-cheif character actually sums up this belief when he tells the Admiral General that “everyone, Blacks, Jews, Asians are all Arabs.” Excuse me? Is he trying to say that calling an Arab is the worst thing you can call someone? His character also uses the derogatory term “sand monkey” to refer to Arab people, which I find upsetting as it is not a nice term, and to throw it into a comedy movie (not, say, to stay true to historical fact or anything) was wrong. Indeed, as much as I loathe racist jokes, I found The Dictator amusing because it’s supposed to parody real-life (albeit most of them dead) dictators and not a culture. Religious wisecracks are smartly left out for the most part (I don’t think he uses the word ‘Allah’ once, substituting in ‘The Creator,’ and one can forgive Baron Cohen for the Jewish jokes since he is, after all, Jewish).
Perhaps that is the catch of this film: the joke’s not just on the Middle East and the looney crackpots who have come to power, but it’s also on America. “Ah America, the birthplace of AIDS,” Al-Adeen comments, his tone uncertain. When he later tries to jump off a bridge, Nadal exchanges some snide remarks about the ugly Crocs he’s wearing on his feet. When Al-Adeen gets wrongly arrested after the hilarious ‘terrorist’ helicopter scene, Zoe berates the policeman in true alternative-protestor-vegan form for stereotyping and showing no respect for regime victims.
The most ironic moment of the film comes with Al-Adeen’s actually-sane speech at the big UN meeting, where he blasts American democracy and society by stating, among other things, that “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.”
His speech does the Occupy Wall Streeters and American critics proud. While, yes, the brutal Middle Eastern dictatorships were (and are, seeing as Bashar Al-Assad of Syria and Ahmadinejad are still in power) senseless, cruel, and unfathomably unfair, but here in America our freedom is not quite as expansive and unlimited as common belief would say. When put, a la the words of a megalomanic fictional character, America appears to be quite classist, racist, and generally, well, unfree.
The question is this: can a country ever insure absolute freedom? Can there ever exist a society that doesn’t judge based on skin or religion, that doesn’t divide into classes of gross inequality, that doesn’t see capitalism as it’s true religion (after all, even the supposedly ‘religious’ Al-Saud family of Saudi Arabia sold out for power and cash by brokering a deal with the Wahhabi establishment of Islam)? The Middle East is in a period of upheaval and changes and awaits to see how the new governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and hopefully Syria will fair. Will they return to dictatorship? Will their new leaders, having lived under oppressive, crazy megalomaniacs quite similiar (though not as hilarious or likable) as Al-Adeen have empathy on their citizens and rule not with an iron fist but with a mindful, attentive ear?
Perhaps. Or maybe leaders in the Middle East should just watch The Dictator first as a primer on how NOT to act!