Want to understand the Trump effect? Go see ‘The Death of Stalin’

Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, John McCain, and General John Kelly … or rather, their 1953 Russian variants.
Image: IFC

Someday in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be sitting in the dark of a multiplex as a trailer plays for the first big-budget movie rendering of the Donald Trump administration. No doubt there will be laughs, gasps, boos, and intense online debates about whether it’s too soon to turn our collective nightmare into silver-screen fodder.

Until that day, one way movie makers can help us process the present American political crisis is to look at it through the lens of dark historical comedy — just as they did during the Vietnam war. While it was still happening, the only way audiences could acknowledge the absurdity of what we were going through was by reaching backward, viewing satires set in Korea (M*A*S*H*, 1970) and World War II (Catch-22, also 1970.) 

And so it is with Trump and one of our era’s greatest satirists, Armando Iannucci. The invective-loving Scotsman made his name with biting sitcoms about inept, craven politicians — Veep in the U.S., The Thick of It in the UK. Now his movie The Death of Stalin has finally reached American theaters (two months after being banned in Russia) and it really couldn’t be more timely.  

That’s not because of any overt comparison between Stalin (a highly effective totalitarian despot who executed and exiled millions) and Trump (an incompetent wannabe despot who is merely deporting millions). It’s because the movie focuses on the next rung down the ladder from the Dear Leader: the loyal lackeys and family members who were complicit in his reign of terror, and who are left flailing and fighting when it’s over. 

In other words, it’s the movie Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the entire GOP caucus need to see right goddamn now. 

The Death of Stalin trailer cued us up to expect a Monty Python-style farce (helped along by the presence of Michael Palin, who plays the old warhorse Molotov). That’s only halfway true. Certainly, there are enough comedy moments to fill a sketch show, not least because the gang of Soviet leaders left in Stalin’s wake keep making jokes at each other’s expense. 

But the overwhelming sense you get from Stalin’s inner circle is that they’re tired. They’ve been worn down from years of having to speak no disloyalty. They’ve had to stay up late, night after night, because Stalin wanted them to watch cowboy movies with no subtitles (a scene I was surprised to discover is historically accurate). Their souls left the building years ago, and their backbones are halfway out the door. 

For these party hacks, the truth has long been a fluid thing — it was whatever the boss said it was — and they don’t know how to grasp it again when they need it. For a good third of the film, they daren’t even declare Stalin’s corpse officially dead. (The situation isn’t helped by the late autocrat’s hostility to science and medicine: The good doctors have all been purged.) 

At the heart of the film is a wonderfully subtle scene in which the Soviet presidium (the cabinet, basically) gets together to decide what happens next. After a lot of tentative hand raising and lowering, they vote to pass everything unanimously — because nobody wants to be seen to dissent. There’s not a shred of ideology left around the table. This is pure survival instinct in action.

The one who stands out from the pack is the head of Stalin’s secret police, Beria (a breakout role for the brilliant Simon Russell Beale). Having led the executions and torture for years, Beria immediately moves to “pause” them post-Stalin so he can be seen as a beloved reformer. His smile at Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) after this brazen flip-flop says it all: It’s easy to succeed in politics when you have no morals whatsoever.

Khrushchev and Beria were the ultimate frenemies, and their relationship is the driving force of the film. While Stalin was still alive, the pair were reduced to doing clownish chest-bumps to distract the big guy from a potential moment of rage. (Meanwhile, in modern-day America, Trump’s staff merely needed to distract the boss from rage-tweeting about Bob Mueller by suggesting he play golf. Progress!)

In reality, Beria was a truly evil piece of work. Among his countless crimes, he was a serial rapist who sent his victims home to their parents with bunches of flowers to make everything appear above board. By simultaneously portraying him as the cheekiest of the cheeky boys, Iannucci is making a powerful point. There are monsters in our midst, and they come bearing jokes.

It’s easy to see why Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted this movie banned. There’s too much truth about autocratic regimes contained within; all those smiling, knowing denials of having poisoned former Russian spies in the UK are straight out of this playbook. If being “post-truth” is the future, The Death of Stalin is what it looks like. 

The entire White House staff, plus any GOP politicians who’ve shown signs of trying to relocate their spines — looking at you, Jeff Flake, Lindsay Graham, and John McCain — should see this film immediately. Trump family members also need a screening. Here is the long-term damage to an entire country that comes of being quiet and loyal. And here’s hoping we can look back and laugh on our own-too-real equivalent someday. 

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