At the Movies

Michael Wood

There is a tradition of dictator jokes in Latin America (‘What time is it?’ ‘Whatever time you say, General’), and there is even a genre known as the dictator novel, of which Autumn of the Patriarch is no doubt the most famous instance. When it was learned that the remains of Carlos Fuentes, who died last month, were to be taken to Montparnasse Cemetery, observers were not slow to note that Porfirio Díaz, the last Mexican despot – well, the last pre-revolutionary despot – is also buried there. The joke was not on Fuentes, whose moderate left-wing credentials were impeccable, but on the culture: in the end, how far from the dictator will any of us lie, in life or death? The old claim about the long Mexican reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party was that it represented an ideal combination of fascism and incompetence. In other versions the phrase was fascism mitigated by corruption. This line of thought actually recurs, I’m sure without any allusive intent, in Larry Charles’s The Dictator, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the evil Oriental Admiral General Aladeen. An eager American dissident says the police in her country are fascists. ‘Yes,’ our hero says, ‘but not in a good way.’

Still, in spite of the echo, there is no real American or English tradition of dictator gags, fond as some of us are of Woody Allen’s Bananas, and even though Duck Soup might be seen as one long dictator romp – it was after all banned by Mussolini. There is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, of course, from which the new film cheerfully borrows wholesale: moments of sentimentality (it’s lonely at the top, especially when you have ordered the killing of almost everyone you know), a plot involving a double, and a nice adaptation of its range of historical reference. Our hero, supreme ruler of the state of Wadiya, and effectively a version of Colonel Gaddafi with odd elements of Hugo Chávez thrown in, hopes he will be listed in history alongside the men he calls the great dictators: Gaddafi himself, Saddam, Kim Jong Il, Cheney. In fact the movie opens with a similar line, and had the audience in the cinema I was in laughing before anything had happened. ‘In loving memory,’ a title reads, ‘of Kim Jong Il.’

But in spite of these interesting debts, The Dictator doesn’t much remind us of The Great Dictator. It’s easier and far less troubling, and even its heroic sallies of bad taste seem rather thin and short. This is an impossible call, though, and we are all going to laugh or not laugh at different things. I thought the joke about the dictator’s video game based on the Munich Olympics and allowing him to zap Israeli athletes was far from funny but said something both about the ghastly fantasies of anti-semitism and about other people’s fantasies regarding anti-semites. But then the scene involving our man’s texting while delivering a baby, and ultimately dropping his mobile phone into the woman’s vagina, seemed to me a bit of grossness for grossness’ sake. [I thought it was really funny – ed.] One can’t adjudicate these things, only report on them. It is important, as Mel Brooks has shown us, to defend bad taste in principle, even if we don’t like its results. It’s one of the few media freedoms left.

Viewed as satire, The Dictator doesn’t do a lot of work. It can’t be news that tyrants are thought to be, and indeed often are, misogynistic megalomaniacs. The difficulty, as a character in Nostromo noted long ago, is to treat them ‘as seriously as the incidental atrocity of methods’ deserves. I laughed when Aladeen delivers the child and says, ‘It’s a girl, where’s the trashcan?’ but the repetition of the joke in another context (‘Which do you want, a boy or an abortion?’) seemed to take away the momentum. Who’s the target here? The ideally retrograde monster, or the good liberal who can’t do without the image of such a figure? Similarly, it’s entertaining that Aladeen takes his idea of modern physics from the cartoons he’s been watching, and that his notion of a seriously impressive beard involves Gandalf. It’s funny too that he’s involved in delivering the child because he stupidly believes all his own propaganda. He has made himself head physician of his state as well as ruler, and given himself four Golden Globes for his impressive acting in various films. This fits with his winning a race because he fired the starting pistol himself (after he was ahead), and shot or threatened all the other runners. Whatever time you say, General.

But perhaps we’re wrong to think of satire and targets. This movie is a frolic, and a frolic has a quite different relation to reality. The well-known line from Duck Soup comes to mind. ‘He may talk like an idiot,’ Groucho says of Chico, ‘and look like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.’ Aladeen is an idiot of one kind – shrewd, ignorant, energetic – and his double is of a different kind, like someone imported from the beginning of Borat, whose mind is on permanent vacation, who knows more about goats than about women, and whose idea of style at the United Nations is to pee into the water jug on the podium. A real idiot, should we say? No, they are both real idiots, and so are we as long as all we can do is call them names. If these tyrants are such idiots, how come they have all the oil and the money, and such rollicking amounts of power? This question is lucidly raised at the end of the movie, without removing us from the realm of the frolic. Just think, Aladeen says, after taking over from his simpleton double, and addressing the UN in his turn, what a dictatorship allows you to do. You can let 1 per cent of the people have nearly all the cash, you can imprison persons of one race out of all proportion to their numbers in the nation, you can torture prisoners, and much, much more. And then he suddenly converts to democracy, because he’s fallen in love, and now believes that everyone deserves respect and rights, ‘no matter how crippled or black or female’ they are – a brilliant conservation of prejudice at the very moment of its apparent abolition. There’s an additional point here. The earlier proposed Wadiyan democracy that was meant to undo Aladeen’s rule was all about selling oil to already rich nations and companies. What was really wrong with Aladeen’s regime was its lack of politeness, its grossness if you like.

He is an idiot in another sense. He doesn’t follow up. Halfway through the film we discover that all the assassinations he ordered were cancelled without his knowledge, and that his intended victims are flourishing in New York. The sinister traditional gesture – hand passing rapidly beneath the throat – certainly indicated a death sentence, but was just a gesture. He does it again when he discovers his American dissident wife is Jewish, and we are not in the least surprised to see her alive and pregnant in the next shot. But then what fantasy of facile victory over the idiot enemy is at work here, and what about the incidental atrocity of methods? Do they fail in their atrocity every time?

There is a kind of answer in what was for me by far the film’s best sequence, and one that did, in its calm, stylish cruelty, begin to recall Chaplin. When he arrives in New York, Aladeen meets his American bodyguard, who instantly insults him by saying how much he hates Arabs. Aladeen says he is not an Arab, but the bodyguard says everybody who is not an American is an Arab as far as he’s concerned. We think this little riff is over, and expect the bodyguard to do his job punctiliously in spite of his bigotry. That’s because we’ve seen too many movies and believed too much of our own ethical propaganda, and we are definitely surprised to see him preparing to torture Aladeen in the next scene, dipping into a box full of nasty-looking instruments. To our further surprise, Aladeen is undaunted, either because he is an idiot or because he has depths of guile and courage he conceals for the rest of the movie, and he starts making sarcastic comments about the engines of torture. Where did you get them, he says? The shah of Iran’s garage sale? The torturer looks worried and starts to boast about the merits of his equipment. In each case Aladeen is able to assert there is better, more up to date gear elsewhere, and that in the serious torture leagues this man just isn’t going to make any kind of mark. The torturer gets more and more upset, distinctly downhearted, although he’s heard nothing but words. The scene ends in a fire, the death of the torturer, and Aladeen’s escape onto the streets of New York. What we have seen is a deeply implausible, wonderfully suggestive portrait of vulnerable vanity mixed up with technology. From the arms race to banking, how many situations in the world depend not on the efficacy of our instruments, but on our belief that our instruments are better than everyone else’s?