The Death of Stalin is a middling comedy which is far more interesting as a study in how toxic ruling systems perpetuate themselves.
As with any state of affairs combining omnipresent peril with institutional irrationality, totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous at its core. Enclosed worlds constructed around the illusion of omnipotence, these systems are overseen by heroic rulers who see all, know all and work tirelessly for the benefit of their people. Yet for all the fabrications required to maintain this fantasy, there remains some truth to it, since the dictator, personally enfeebled as he may be, still has the entire force of the state at his disposal. Even more than the vainglorious buffoonery of D.C. politics or the coalition-powered stodginess of the UK’s creaky system, the inherent farcicality of Soviet-era Russia therefore seems ripe for satire. Yet while Armando Iannucci has excelled at puncturing the pretensions of those two echo-chamber environments, his take on autocratic absurdity comes off a bit less barbed in The Death of Stalin, a middling comedy which is far more interesting as a study in how toxic ruling systems perpetuate themselves.
Chronicling the strongman’s final days, and the desperate dash for control that took place following his demise, the film casts Stalin’s cabinet as a cadre of shambling comic buffoons, all of them in awe of their ruthlessly efficient overlord. These range from Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) to Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin), the use of American and British actors providing further dissonance in a world where the illusion is already constantly slipping. To survive in this society is to accept your role as another player in a story whose tone is constantly shifting, where the official party line keeps shifting and accepted political history changes along with it.
Among the harried public, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is treated with a reverent mixture of fear and love, feelings which eventually prove his undoing. After collapsing in his office, he’s left alone for hours, no one brave enough to disobey his edict on not entering without spoken approval. Once his prone body is finally discovered, by now soaked in cold urine, his cabinet members are forced to restore it to something resembling a dignified state. As the official apparatus of last rites, interment and succession kick in, the group continues to scramble, handling the transfer of power like a series of high-wire football laterals.
As with other Iannucci works, an initial catastrophe leads to a cascade of attempts to avoid the worst consequences of the fallout. There are no hyper-competent heroes ready to take charge, only vapid functionaries practiced in the art of spinning failure into success. Watching this by-now familiar process play out amid the opulence of the mid-century USSR is interesting, if never completely inspired, and The Death of Stalin’s satiric effect is blunted by the fact that it’s not entirely clear what it’s satirizing. Trumpism seems like the obvious target, especially considering the routine idiocy on display here, yet that comparison never feels more than skin deep.
It’s significant that the movie was actually finished before the 2016 election, and upon reflection it becomes clear that the disaster of our current kakistocratic regime has actually made it harder to appreciate the message The Death of Stalin is attempting to communicate. This is not a story about institutional collapse, but one about the maintenance of political theater as a façade, behind which the true arbiters of control fix the game to suit their interests. In short, it’s a satire that would have played better with a competent administration in office, one pushing promises of change while allowing the same problems of corruption and inaction to multiply. As in his previous work, the film finds Iannucci invested in laying bare the festering stagnancy of our political systems, which exist only to serve and propagate power, leaving those they claim to serve in the lurch.