The Death of Stalin (2018) by Armando Iannucci
Review by Lydia Creech
Really nasty black comedies are hard to pull off. The satirical intent has to be focused and clear, the shocks have to serve a purpose (comedic or thematic), and, of course, it has to actually be, you know, funny. Thankfully, Armando Iannucci more than rises to the challenge.
It’s a matter of historical record what actually happened after Stalin died from a stroke in 1953, but I’m an American and I’m ignorant about other countries’ histories, so I was left to be surprised about who would eventually come out on top (more or less) of the ensuing power struggle. What I was not surprised about was the way those left to pick up the pieces and start a new regime were snivelling sycophants utterly not up to the task. Afterall, dictators don’t stay dictators by surrounding themselves with people they can’t control, regardless of what sort of vacuum of incompetence will be left behind when they’re gone. It may not be entirely historically accurate (I don’t know and will not do research to find out!), but it’s a familiar angle and ripe ground, and I dig it.
Iannucci is a veteran of political satire as the showrunner for Veep (American politics) and The Thick of It (British), and he carefully walks the tightrope of skewering the small, petty men who would take part in such a government and showcasing the horror they wrought. It’s funny to watch the various cabinet members squabble over how best to move Stalin’s body or try to politically (and sometimes physically) outmaneuver each other, but there are also shot-to-the-head moments of violence (literally characters being shot in the head onscreen. Multiple times). It’s important to keep in mind that these men cost many people their lives, and we shouldn’t feel sorry for a single one.
Buscemi as Khrushchev is excellent--he plays a great weasel, whether trying to actually maneuver into a better position at the funeral or undercut his political opponents. He’s supported (opposed?) by Jeffrey Tambor, playing the part of a merely symbolic figurehead who knows it but is unfortunately a bit too stupid to get out, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria, actually a real threat for being the most competent of the bunch. They all work together to craft truly unlikeable characters, such as when racing (“How can you run and plot at the same time!?”) to comfort Stalin’s grieving daughter for political brownie points or almost playing bumper cars to be the first out of the gates for the funeral procession as the NKVD show up to… liquidate… Stalin’s household. None of them like any of the others, and we the audience don’t either.
For me, black comedy works best when dealing with totally unsympathetic characters. Characters being so nakedly ambitious and callous can and should be made to look ridiculous, but also their actions created real world misery. “I’M the one who wanted reforms!” Khrushchev whines when Beria “beats” him to the populist move of ending the state-sanctioned mass arrests and executions, before starting a course of action that results in even more civilian deaths, but it sure made that other guy look bad. It’s not that the men who worked for Stalin were evil cartoon villains, but just horrible, petty people in a way that becomes truly disturbing in light of the fact that horrible, petty people get into government work all the time. Black comedy exists to shine a light on such human ugliness, and we may laugh but also get a twisted feeling in our guts from recognition.