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Bridget Johnson

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May 18, 2012 - 3:16 pm

I’m not one to judge a film based on politics. I want to sit down, hear a good story, see some good acting, laugh at a great comedy or feel stirred by an epic drama, and leave who went to whose fundraiser at the door. But when that rare movie comes along that touches on every political theme a foreign policy junkie loves, it’s the politics — or in this case, the unabashed political incorrectness — that makes the film.

For all of the mocking they invite, not enough films have really goofed on dictators. Team America: World Police did an utterly classic dressing down of Kim Jong-Il (still mad they never sold a stuffed doll in movie merchandising), UN weapons inspectors (Hans Brix!), terrorists in Dirkadirkastan, and Alec Baldwin.

When The Dictator opened with a dedication in loving memory of Kim Jong-Il, I had high hopes for this latest Sacha Baron Cohen outing. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint, pulling the eccentricities of the era’s goofiest tyrants such as Gadhafi (and his all-female bodyguard squad) into one character.

Past punking people as he did as Borat and Bruno, Cohen is Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African country Wadiya, which is squeezed next to Sudan on a cable-news map (he calls blacks in America “sub-Saharans”). In a classic speech, he tells the country and the world that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and for medical purposes only. By the time he gets to the part about not wanting to take out Israel, he can’t contain his laughter.

And as he promptly goes to visit his secret nuclear weapons facility, it’s clear that the main target is Iran — in a later scene, supervising a store in Brooklyn, he makes employees call him the “Supreme Grocer.” He refers to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a guy who looks like a “snitch on Miami Vice.” (I’d always thought B-movie director, myself.) His nuclear missile is called the “Beard of Doom.”

Like the “ronery” Kim Jong-Il puppet of Team America fame, Aladeen is lonely and wants someone to cuddle — something more than the hooker who quickly gets dressed, noting that she’s due at the Italian prime minister’s. It’s little digs like this that are cleverly woven throughout.

His adventure begins when he goes to New York — “America: built by the blacks, owned by the Chinese,” he declares — to speak before the United Nations in an effort to ward off further action against his country. Here comes the renowned Saddam ploy of body doubles — and with them, a chance for his scheming uncle and No. 2, played by Ben Kingsley, to try to get Aladeen out of the way and line his pockets with oil contracts in a newly democratic Wadiya (except, he tells BP, don’t bring your own rigs).

After being cast off into American society, Aladeen meets a feminist protester named Zoey — played by Anna Faris, perfect in this role — who runs a mini version of Whole Foods called the Free Earth Cooperative, a feminist vegan store that employs only political refugees and is adorned with pictures of Obama and Che. Zoe, who declares herself so anti-racist that she hasn’t had a white boyfriend in ages, has unshaven underarms and organic deodorant that would “gas the Kurds,” in Aladeen’s words. “I know what I’m talking about because I majored in feminist lit!” she barks at a cop.

The film mercilessly hits on everything from countries that don’t allow women to drive (hello, Riyadh) and countries that only value male babies to “elections” in the post-Arab Spring world. And one dig that the current re-election campaign wouldn’t like: Aladeen notes that Osama bin Laden is still bunking in his guest house, hiding there ever since his body double was shot last year.

There is a lot of gross-out, cringe-worthy humor in this movie, but anyone who saw the hotel wrestling match in Borat should expect that. And there is one especially gross stunt directed at the Israeli delegation at the United Nations — but it actually serves as an exceptionally poignant metaphor for how Israel is actually treated at the UN.

There are a few jabs at the right — remember, in Team America, in Borat, nobody was spared — but the digs at the aforementioned targets far outweigh them. Cohen takes clever stabs at anti-Semitism in the Arab world and at jihadi culture (like his character’s film, You’ve Got Mail Bomb). And who wouldn’t love an Arabic rendition of REM’s “Everybody Hurts” as the dictator yearns for his oppressive post back?

Foreign Policy magazine wonders if The Dictator is racist and Tajikistan has banned the film. And that may be all we need to say.

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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