I don’t know about you, but I think political satire has lost some of its edge. Maybe that’s a reflection of the changing times, or maybe the current presidential administration has simply made it too easy. Regardless, as iteration after iteration of the dumb, tactless attempts at commentary brought to us by such offerings as Showtime’s “Our Cartoon President” manage to hold our societal attention, one can’t help but feel disappointed in the state of modern satire. That’s not to say the genre has completely declined — Alec Baldwin and Co. of Saturday Night Live remain as savvy as ever — however it feels as if our societal supply of fresh insights on the American political landscape is dwindling.
Enter “The Death of Stalin,” the latest release from writer and director Armando Iannucci. The film centers around the Soviet Council of Ministers — including appearances from the likes of Steve Buscemi (“Leo”) as Nikita Kruschev and Jeffrey Tambor (“55 Steps”) as Georgy Malenkov — as they frantically try to make sense of the chaos that follows the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The world of “The Death of Stalin” is one where the political is inextricably tied to the personal, where an impulsive despot presides over a nation, and where everything is taken to the most extreme degree. There’s no better illustration of the type of world the film occupies than in the opening sequence, where Stalin requests a recording of a concerto being performed in Moscow, but there’s only one problem: The performance has just ended. Fearing grim consequences, the employees of the concert hall frantically scramble to get the audience to return to their seats and for the orchestra to start over from the beginning. It’s gut-bustingly hilarious, but it’s also a grave reminder of how the world quakes beneath the boots of tyrants with every action they make.
The film spends its entire runtime performing this very balancing act, never letting the audience forget the gravity of its own ridiculousness, while simultaneously never letting itself stray too far from its absurdity. Many other aspects of the film carry this duplicitous nature, such as how a film can offer biting satire of American politics while being set in a different country during a different time period. In some ways, this dichotomy is crucial; the Soviet Union and communism stand as the supposed antitheses to Trumpist Republicanism, and yet one can’t help but draw parallels. The brash, reactionary nature of Stalin’s rule conjures images of the reported culture of “fear and intimidation” in the White House today.
Despite these parallels, Iannucci’s satire never feels heavy handed. The film makes no direct comparisons to the Trump administration, or even to American politics in general, because that’s not quite the point of the film. Iannucci isn’t trying to say that Donald Trump is a tyrant, or responsible for anywhere near the level of horror that Stalin inflicted upon his people; rather, watching the film is like looking in a funhouse mirror at an absurd and vaguely horrifying image in which we can’t help but see vestiges of our reality. The film does less to harpoon any specific administration than it does to draw attention to the insanity of an entire branch of political development, one centered around despotism, fear and the cult of personality.
Throughout the film’s runtime, this omnipresent sense of foreboding never fully lets the audience go. As fits of laughter turn to sickened gasps, we are reminded again and again of how shockingly human — that is to say, how shockingly cruel and illogical — governance can be. Iannucci poses greater questions concerning why and how man seeks power, and what it turns him into when he obtains it. “The Death of Stalin” toys with this dark streak in human nature, as if playing jump rope with it. It’s in this way that Iannucci masterfully paints a vivid — and often uproariously funny — picture of the insanity of despotism.