Gilbey on Film: Sacha Baron Cohen is back

This time as dictator General Aladeen of Wadiya.

To the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, at the behest of a certain General Aladeen of Wadiya. As the invitation puts it: “His Excellency Admiral General Aladeen Would Like to Pleasure You at the World Premiere of The Dictator.” Perhaps it is this unusual promise which brought all these shiny orange people onto the red carpet on a dismal, rainy Thursday evening prior to watching the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen. You would think their stylists would have warned them that tangerine doesn’t go with red, but here they are anyway, the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, illuminated still further in the sheet lightning from fifty photographers’ flashbulbs. No, strike that - the people behind me are saying it’s the cast of Geordie Shore. We’ll go with that. Thank you, people behind me.

Next is an abrasive wee fellow named Louis Spence. I don’t know who he is or what he’s done to warrant a place on the red carpet, but Alex Zane, the red-carpet interviewer with scissor legs, is mighty pleased to see him. What would Louis do if he were dictator of his own country? “Spit at people with speech impediments,” apparently. Oh dear. Is that an in-joke? Alex laughs, but it’s the fearful laughter of a man who sees his every media moment through the prism of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal, wondering: “Who will be next? Could it be me?” Moving along, he interviews one of several comics currently named Russell (not Brand), who tells him that what makes Sacha Baron Cohen so brilliant is that “he finds the line and thrusts across it …He totally, schizophrenically inhabits who he becomes.”

Right on cue, here comes the film’s star as General Aladeen, arriving in front of the venue waving from the driver’s seat of an orange Lamborghini - a clamped orange Lamborghini, that is, mounted on the bed of a City of Westminster tow truck. I like his habit of only giving press interviews in character (see this email exchange with Dennis Lim of the New York Times). Even if you don’t find it funny (though personally I’m tickled by his in-character assertion that “The Arab Spring is just a silly fad, like ‘mood rings’ or ‘human rights’”), you have to concede that it’s preferable to celebrities talking about the spiritual journey which they embarked upon with their latest role. Imagine if everyone gave interviews in character. Wouldn’t that be something? Unless it was Jodie Foster in Nell, obviously. Clearly there would need to be exemptions.

Just after the lights go down, Baron Cohen appears — still in costume and in character — in a spotlight in the balcony, greeting the audience with cries of “Hello, hello, death to the West!” and “Hello, English devils”. He says he has been enjoying his red carpet experience. “Usually when I am on a red carpet it is because I have just beheaded someone in my living room.”

That’s the general tenor of the material in The Dictator, which has at its core the novel idea of an essentially innocent oppressor: a naïve, mollycoddled man who just happens to be a vicious murderer. It’s really the same joke that held together Baron Cohen’s last two films, Borat and Brüno — wide-eyed naïf comes to the US and exposes inadvertently that country’s hypocrisy and small-mindedness — but with the twist of making him a psychopath rather than merely a buffoon.

Watching The Dictator, which begins with the dedication “In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-Il”, I missed the genuinely dangerous edge of Borat and Brüno; those pictures placed Baron Cohen in volatile, real-life scenarios where his provocations almost led to violence against him. There’s no way to fake or replace it. On the other hand, that species of comedy can’t go on forever, not least because the actor is now a widely recognisable superstar, unlikely to be able to orchestrate pranks of the same scale. At least The Dictator is often wildly funny, particularly when General Aladeen, stripped of his uniform and beard, and wandering New York for reasons too convoluted to recount, has to take work in a Brooklyn feminist co-operative “for people of all or no genders” (as the store worker Zoe, played by the impish Anna Faris, puts it).

The film has teeth, which it bares occasionally. I’m not thinking so much of the bad taste gags—a terrorism Wii game, which offers Aladeen options such as “Tokyo Subway” and “London Underground” before he opts for “Munich Olympics,” drew a shocked gasp from the audience, while there’s a running gag involving a severed head, which was done better in the horror-comedy Re-Animator. But it succeeds in finding a rich vein of humour in post-9/11 paranoia. And it turns the tables on both liberalism (in its lively mockery of Zoe and her co-op pals) and the west, the latter skewered in an inspired monologue which has Aladeen showing how the US advocates at home the same cruelty it decries in foreign regimes.

"The Dictator" is released 16 May.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the premiere of The Dictator (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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