Whenever I hear about something particularly ludicrous that Trump has done, be it the fake TIME Magazine hanging at his golf clubs or him just staring directly at a solar eclipse, my reaction is usually to laugh, and then shudder. This guy has nuclear codes. That reaction was felt many, many times watching The Death of Stalin, the new film from Veep creator Armando Iannucci. It’s a comedy, and a very funny one at that, but every laugh is superseded by a mounting feeling of dread that only intensifies as the story hurtles towards its shocking, grotesque finale. Screenwriters Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows present the mostly true story, albeit with a very accelerated timeline, of the chaos that followed Stalin’s unexpected demise, and the film is entirely unafraid of depicting the atrocities committed by the Soviet government during their regime.
Consider one scene, where the remaining members of the Central Committee gather all the doctors in Moscow to try and save their dying leader. The only problem is that Stalin had previously rounded up the majority of doctors in the capital, and shipped them elsewhere to be tortured for their role in a supposed plot to assassinate Soviet leadership. Needless to say, it proves very challenging to find a good doctor, and Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage. The irony here is undeniably funny, and is played for all it’s worth, as is the incompetence of the only doctors that were deemed of no threat to Stalin, and the incessant scheming of everyone on the Central Committee. The menace sets in when, after Stalin dies, every civilian witness is either forcibly taken away in trucks, or shot on the spot.
It would have been easy to simply portray the leadership as buffoons, and skirt around the terror they inflicted on the people they governed. Indeed, being unfamiliar with the works of Iannucci, and knowing only what the poster looked like, this was what I expected. And while they certainly have their buffoonish moments – a scene where Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev repeatedly uses Stalin’s lifeless feet to point the direction they should carry him is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while – they are never portrayed as anything less than monsters. When they inevitably make a movie about the horror show that is the Trump Administration I hope this is the route they take, rather than the softball approach of, say, Oliver Stone’s W. Ideally the film would also be directed by Armando Iannucci.
The production values in The Death of Stalin are superb. Cinematographer Zac Nicholson’s Moscow is a gray wasteland, a city devoid of hope, at the mercy of voracious wolves. The score by Chris Willis ranges from bombastic (every time a new character is introduced, time slows down and the music swells) to poignant (a son turning his father over to the secret police). It is incredibly rare that a comedy looks and sounds this good. The cast is stellar, with my favourite performances being Buscemi’s wolf-in-sheep’s clothing portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale’s truly astounding turn as Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Beale commands every scene he’s in, oscillating effortlessly between Beria’s reptilian charm, untethered ambition, and barely concealed desperation.
The Death of Stalin is not going to be for everyone. There are sequences, especially in the final fifteen minutes, when comedy takes a definite backseat to horror. As the Central Committee’s squabbling and scheming is replaced by swift and brutal action, we are reminded that yes, this actually happened, yes, this is still happening in plenty of countries, and yes, until we can find an alternative to power hungry psychopaths running the world, this will continue to happen, again, and again, and again.