Movies

The Death of Stalin Showed the Toothless Political Comedy of Vice How It’s Done

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 9.

Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin.
Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gaumont.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Dear Comrades,

As soon as I asked Bilge the question of where political comedy might go—or have left to go—in 2019, I knew what movie I myself wanted to take on in our next round: The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s black-as-pitch film about the murderous internecine jockeying in the Kremlin after the sudden passing of the Soviet dictator. Conceived and filmed before Brexit or Trump were a done deal, The Death of Stalin doesn’t function as an allegory for or commentary on those or any other, present-day matters. Instead, Iannucci—a master of up-to-the-minute political satire in sitcoms like The Thick of It and Veep—sets his sights on the ugly mechanics of the transfer of state power, not just in Cold War–era USSR but as a transhistorical phenomenon.

There’s a reason the actors playing Russians in The Death of Stalin speak in their native English or American accents, and in the modern, creatively profane cadences Iannucci and his team of writers are known for. Though most of the absurd and horrific events it depicts really happened, this isn’t an attempt at factually accurate reconstruction but a mordant remix. The essay of Karl Marx’s that begins with that frequently quoted line—that “all great world-historic facts and personages” repeat themselves, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”—contains another well-known passage just a few sentences later:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

For all its sick humor—because of all its sick humor—Iannucci’s film feels that nightmarish historical weight, and lets the viewer feel it too.

That’s not to propose The Death of Stalin as some sort of model for all political comedies going forward. If anything, it was the movie’s unrepeatable oddball quality that set it apart among the year’s releases. But with our own Dear Leader regularly coming up with material as stellar as his recent suggestion that we imitate the Finns in their diligent raking of the forest floor (insert shot of Finnish president looking expressionlessly at camera), those who write, direct, and act in politically themed comedies are going to have to come up with new approaches that go beyond SNL-sketch-style current-events satire.

Unlike you, Bilge, I didn’t see Christian Bale’s performance in Vice as one of the movie’s admittedly manifold weaknesses. It was my faith that Bale was working to find something in the character of Cheney beyond the script’s shallow conception that kept me staying with that movie to the bitter end. (Extremely bitter: Did you all stay for the post-credits stinger, written about by Slate critic and Fox News star Sam Adams, in which McKay cuts back to that political focus group to belittle, essentially, us, the insufficiently appreciative audience of Vice?) But I see what you mean about how the tradition of TV sketch comedy, with its emphasis on easy-to-identify vocal tics and exaggerated re-enactments of recent real-life idiocies, becomes a limitation when it’s imported into a long-form biopic, even one with comic intentions. I felt that limitation even more sharply in Sam Rockwell’s small role as George W. Bush, which might have made for a funny late-night skit—the good ol’ boy chumminess, the barbecue sauce–stained chin—but didn’t bring enough to our understanding of Bush to even make laughing at him fun.

The obvious next movie to mention here would be Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a comedy about politics and power that failed to delight me the way it did so many critics and audiences. Oh, I appreciated the sadistic refinements of Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz’s ruthless competition for the queen’s favor, and was moved by Olivia Colman’s profound performance as the most humanly unmajestic of monarchs. But The Favourite struck me as needlessly fussy in its structure (those smug intertitles before each “chapter”) and distractingly showoff-y in its direction. (The court of Queen Anne is a fishbowl! We got it the first five times, Yorgos Lanthimos!) To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed The Favourite’s A-list trio of divas and salty C-word-laced dialogue. I just didn’t find the movie had that much to say about the world outside the (admittedly luscious) hothouse it built for itself.

Amy, since The Favourite made No. 1 on your Top 10 list, would you like to set me straight on its merits, or at least wipe the barbecue sauce off my chin? And Kam, since the No. 1 movie on your list was Paul Schrader’s spiritual/psychological thriller First Reformed, can you accompany us down a few of what you call that movie’s “dark detours,” including that twisty, phantasmagorical, redemptive-yet-heartbreaking ending? What happens to Ethan Hawke’s anguished activist priest in those last few minutes, both in the world around him and within his feverishly altered subjective perception? Where does the movie leave Reverend Toller, and where is it supposed to leave us?

Tragically and farcically yours,

Dana

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