Comparative Analysis: The Dictator (2012) and The Great Dictator (1940)

I have often said that I do not enjoy indulging in comparative analysis when writing a standard review. Sometimes it does come up by I try not to focus on that aspect. However, there will be the rare occasion where the comparative analysis angle is far more intriguing than a standard review, so I have taken it here. I hope you enjoy it and welcome comments.

After having seen The Dictator a thought occurred to me that would invariably shift the tone and direction of the piece I wrote regarding it and it would thus not be a traditional review. The thought was as follows: The Dictator is like Sacha Baron Cohen’s own take on The Great Dictator. Now before proceeding with this line of reasoning allow me to state unequivocally that I am not for a second equating Cohen to Chaplin. What I am saying is that the parallels that this film shares with the one made 72 years ago are rather hard to ignore.

Frankly, I could also write a little more on this topic and explaining why this film does work to the extent that it does and find that this is a much more interesting dialogue than “How funny is this?” as that’s quite the subjective question, and “How does this rank in Cohen’s canon thus far?,” ibid.

Now, this might seem a rather facile allusion at first but what most intrigued me about this thought was the absolutely refractory nature that this tale has and that it makes The Dictator not only true to its time but as true to the artistic force driving it as The Great Dictator was.

The first confluence that the two films share is that there is a rather overt political message being delivered in the film. Each fits the tone of the actor and the film perfectly aside from being a necessary oration for the political climate in which it was spoken. Chaplin, the silent star, who resisted the advent of sound with fervor eventually, slowly gave in. The Great Dictator was his grudging embrace of the new form. That’s not to say Chaplin didn’t make it a visual venture, as this film features the iconic playing with the globe scene but it does also have the memorable speech, one of the most brilliant pieces of acting ever committed to celluloid. The silent star has a stump speech wherein he not only wears his heart on his sleeve but belies the fact that he is a double for the dictator.

The Dictator does have its own double aspect, however, as the title indicates, it focuses on the dictator rather than the double, and the speech here is given by the dictator not the double. The speech, as opposed to being heartfelt, goes from being tongue-in-cheek to sarcastic to the near equivalent of a bit from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, the 21st Century replacement of the political cartoon. Chaplin’s speech was made during the darkest moments of the 20th century and was a message of hope, whereas Cohen is speaking in a world that alternates between great apathy and great fervency, where there is much conviction with little to no information despite the ready availability thereof. In the end, his is a rather even slam of both sides showing the warts totalitarianism and capitalism have.

While Cohen’s tale creates a fictitious nation meant to capture the foibles of as many leaders of Aladeen’s ilk as possible, Chaplin’s is clearly a caricature of Adolf Hitler, and has the additional layer of being a personal statement by Chaplin on his own behalf, who had for years been a presumed Communist by Hoover’s FBI.

While the cinematic quality of either is never going to be confused, I will reiterate that each reflects their lead perfectly. Chaplin was every bit the dramatist, the sensitive artist as he was a comedian, he’s cinema’s crying clown, only he’s unlikely to frighten small children. Cohen is broad, crude and if he’s left a member of his audience un-offended he feels he’s failed in his mission. His style is a perfect reflect of the excess and vapidity of the global political scene in this day and age. This is not to say that decisions of today’s world leaders do not carry weight, but while the world is always in the balance we’ve rarely come so close to the brink of global devastation as we did in World War II. Therefore, the tone of events allow for greatly contrasting tones in the films.

Cohen’s film taking place in a world that is not completely and totally at war allows there to be more societal commentary here, namely in the person of Zoey (Anna Faris). It’s not subtle and it doesn’t always work perfectly but she is the personification of what I referenced above: much conviction with not enough information.

The insanity of World War II also lead to the creation of the United Nations, what was essentially supposed to be a more effective solution than the prior League of Nations. In some ways it has been, in others not as much, this is also a notion that this film toys with quite a bit. Whereas The Great Dictator tackles the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority foremost, then the major players of the Nazi party and then the party’s constructs. The tertiary commentaries of The Dictator vary from totalitarian mindset, to post-9/11 paranoia, the year of protest and more.

While very different tonally, in terms of comedic and dramatic effect it would be fascinating to see these two films as a double feature and further compare and contrast them, but there are some of the most apparent parallels that I found upon one viewing of the newer film.

For the record, there is a bit of inconsistency in The Dictator for my liking. The laughs stop long enough so you notice some of the sillier plot points so the most I can give it is a 7/10. Having said that, I clearly found method to Cohen’s madness such that I took up this tangential association as the most interesting way I could find to discuss it. No film is perfect but there are few films in this day and age that even have something to say, and no matter how crass the method of delivery or how silly the context that does mean a great deal, and I definitely appreciated that.