A Darkly Funny Look at Stalin

Who would have predicted brutal despots would be a prominent topic of political conversation in the year 2018? Or that we would have a President who never met a non-communist dictator that he didn’t like and who seems surprised on a daily basis that his job doesn’t give him the same authority as them? Seeing Armando Iannucci’s hilarious new movie, The Death of Stalin, makes one believe that the sharp-witted political satirist could have predicted all these things. The acclaimed creator of HBO’s beloved Veep dramatically raises the stakes with his latest comedy. A man like Josef Stalin, responsible for the death of millions of his own citizens, may not appear to be an obvious subject for a comedy, but Iannucci has adapted Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel about Stalin’s demise into a darkly funny satire that reveals the true costs of authoritarianism.

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In 1953, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) rules the Soviet Union with an iron fist. As state propaganda celebrates him as a benevolent and kindly leader, anyone who even appears to oppose him faces immediate imprisonment or death. His inner circle orbits around him in a constant state of obsequiousness and terror. They must cater to the brutal dictator’s every whim, whether it is executing political opponents or staying up all night drinking and watching American cowboy movies, always aware that the slightest wrong word could result in their instant demise. When Stalin is cut down by a stroke, the jockeying for power begins immediately. Although Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the ruthless leader of the Secret Police, is Stalin’s obvious successor, the nervous but wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) soon emerges as a slightly less horrifying alternative. Their conflicting impulses of greed and fear propel a hilarious game of cat and mouse that offers glory to the victor and certain death to the loser, although Iannucci’s witty final shot hints at the hollow and precarious nature of any victory in such a violent and corrupt government.

In a bold move, Iannucci allows his ensemble of brilliant comic actors (Buscemi, Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor) to speak with their own natural voices rather than the phony Russian accents that one might expect. Although initially off-putting, this decision ultimately pays enormous dividends as it allows the actors to focus on the sharp dialogue and use their own comic personas to bring out the humanity in the real-life monsters they are portraying on screen.

Iannucci uses the power of humor to vividly capture the small-mindedness of these “great men” and the vast damage they inflict upon the ordinary people they claim to love. At a moment when the appeal of authoritarian leaders is on the rise, The Death of Stalin is a hilarious film that reveals the dangerous consequences behind the seductiveness of absolute power and offers the apparently always-needed reminder that “the emperor has no clothes.”

dylan skolnick

Dylan Skolnick lives in the East, but loves a good western. He can be found most days and many evenings at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is co-director (www.cinemaartscentre.org).