Sascha Baron Cohen’s recently released film The Dictator borrows several elements from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator. In both there is a dictator and his double, a reversal of fortunes, a sly official following own plans, an unanticipated ‘friendship’ with an opponent, a love affair with a naïve but virtuous young woman, an important final speech which is an ode to democracy and at the same time a declaration of love—and several slapstick scenes revolving around misunderstandings and mistaken identities.
Baron Cohen and his director Larry Charles skillfully adapt the themes borrowed from Chaplin to modern times. In this regard, what is telling—and a bit frightening—is how the majority of the movie’s most hilarious dialogues, gags or incidents are based on real events or exchanges as reported in the media and involving real-life dictators such as Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saddam Hussein or Muamar al-Gaddafi.
The movie is at its most subversive when it is politically incorrect and especially when it reveals, by a slight linguistic or visual turn, the conceptual proximity between good and evil, or right and wrong, when moralizing is the guiding principle. Great examples: the short-term transformation of an ecological grocery shop into an authoritarian sect worshiping its leader; or the final speech on what America would be like if it were to be a dictatorship.
Of course, The Dictator would not be an authentic Baron Cohen movie if it were also not to be gross and obscene at times, but interestingly that sort of protects it from becoming typecast into political correctness by inversion. Vulgarity is not to everyone’s taste, but in this particular context it mostly represents irony at its best.