The Dictator

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  These are the words of British politician and historian Sir John Dahlberg-Acton from a letter written in 1887 about the Catholic Church doctrine of papal infallibility.  It has often been quoted (and misquoted) about the effect unbridled power sometimes has on those who are in control of others.  Throughout history, those who take control of countries without the advice and consent of the populace almost universally turn into petty despots who use their power to oppress their people and enrich themselves and their supporters.  The “Arab Spring” protests that began in 2011, some of which are still underway, shone a bright light on those who wield unchallenged power.  The killings, torture and other atrocities committed against the people of countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia led directly to the ouster of those countries hardline dictators.  Some met gruesome ends of their own at the hands of those they oppressed.  Others are facing trial for their crimes; but it isn’t just the rulers of countries who sometimes become drunk with power.  Titans of industry, leaders of companies, even locally elected officials sometimes feel above the law and entitled to more than they are due.  It’s with these serious situations in mind that filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen has come to explore the mind of despot in “The Dictator.”  Naturally, he doesn’t explore the topic seriously.

Admiral General Hafez Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) is the undisputed ruler of the North African Republic of Wadiya and has been for 40 years since the death of his father.  Aided by his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), Aladeen rules Wadiya and its vast oil wealth with an iron hand, ordering executions without regret for the slightest transgression.  The United Nations orders Aladeen to come before the Security Council and explain his country’s plans for the enriched uranium he is producing.  He claims it’s for medical research and energy but actually intends to build nuclear weapons.  Arriving at his New York hotel, Aladeen is introduced to Mr. Clayton (John C. Reilly) who will oversee his security while in the city.  Clayton is actually a hitman hired by unknown forces to murder the Admiral General and replace him with an easily manipulated stand-in.  Clayton cuts Aladeen’s beard off and intends to kill him but accidently sets himself on fire, allowing Aladeen to escape.  Without his trademark beard and uniform, Aladeen is unrecognizable and begins wondering the streets of the city with no money.  He runs into a young woman named Zoey (Anna Faris) at a demonstration outside the UN against Aladeen’s regime.  Zoey runs an organic, sustainable market and co-op and is very much someone against the dictator’s policies.  She offers him a job at the store which he initially refuses but is convinced to accept by the former head of the Wadiyan nuclear program Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas).  Nadal, fired by Aladeen and thought executed, is living in New York.  He agrees to help Aladeen return to power but wants to get his old job back in return.  Zoey’s store is catering the ceremony where the fake Aladeen will sign a new constitution, bringing democracy to Wadiya and allowing foreign oil companies to begin drilling in the country.
Among the words used to describe “The Dictator,” subtle will not be one of them.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s film is about as tactful as a sledgehammer on a glass-topped coffee table.  Cohen, who is best known for his characters Ali G and Borat along with the German fashionista Bruno, doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty with over-the-top characterizations of larger than life people.  The film doesn’t take long to begin offending pretty much every human being on the planet in one way or another and usually numerous times.  Cohen, who co-wrote the script and is one of the producers, makes Aladeen the most dangerous kind of dictator…stupid.  Aladeen is blissfully ignorant of the world and what it means to treat others with dignity.  This is highlighted numerous times in the film but most clearly when he finishes having sex with actress Megan Fox and has one of his servants take a picture of the two of them together.  He puts the photo on a wall covered in similar photos of the various celebrities he’s paid for sex.  Of course, this is also how we are introduced to the insecure and needy side of the dictator that just wants to be loved and snuggle with someone in bed.  All of Cohen’s characters are annoying and grating in one way (or multiple ways) or another, but each has a nugget of goodness to them.  In Aladeen’s case, it’s buried under multiple layers of ignorance, greed and entitlement.
The movie wastes very little time laying on the jokes in thick layers.  Some of the funniest material is lines that are tossed off as asides or just before the scene changes.  There are also larger set pieces and montages that are also very funny.  John C. Reilly is put to good use in a brief role.  The security chief who has been paid to kill Aladeen wants to impress the dictator with his torture devices but learns he cannot show anything to the dictator he hasn’t already seen or seen better.  Anna Faris, who isn’t my favorite comic actress, manages to keep her more annoying habits in check and turns Zoey into a likable, naïve and unshaven waif who is able to deliver some giggles thanks to her wide-eyed optimism and politically correct worldview.  Jason Mantzoukas plays the highly excitable nuclear expert turned Apple genius Nadal.  Without the threat of instant execution hanging over his head, Nadal doesn’t mind telling Aladeen exactly what he thinks.  Even though he wants to keep the dictator in power, I found myself oddly rooting for Nadal to get his job back.  Mantzoukas is extremely likable in the role and I hope this allows him more opportunities in other films.
The film’s primary weakness is the story.  None of it is even slightly plausible.  If someone like Aladeen said the things he says to any New Yorker, he’d probably wind up dead in an alley.  Zoey and her co-workers at the store take far too much abuse from the deposed dictator.  The film also wraps itself up in a tidy little package far too easily with a predictable happy ending.  Cohen, who has a reputation for taking huge cinematic risks, plays it very safe with the film’s conclusion.  It feels like an appeal to the average moviegoer to like an unlikable character and comes off as a cheap ploy.
“The Dictator” is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, brief male nudity, language and some violent images.  There are descriptions of sexual activity couched in what’s supposed to sound like a foreign language.  There’s a rather graphic section where a woman is having a baby and Aladeen’s hands are shown inside the woman’s body.  We see a couple of people shot in the head and one person set on fire.  Most of the sexual content is played for laughs.  Apparently, Cohen has a clause in his contract requiring he appear with full frontal nudity as we get a brief look at his equipment.  Foul language is common.
I’ve not been a big fan of either “Borat” or “Bruno” and feared I wouldn’t much care for this film either.  I was wrong.  The scripted creations of Sacha Baron Cohen appeal to me much more than his “mockumentaries.”  Cohen lays on the vulgarity and humor in thick layers as Admiral General Aladeen and I believe this is one dictator I can live with.
“The Dictator” gets four guitars out of five.
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