Is The Death of Stalin good? A not-so-friendly debate

Jake Skubish: The Death of Stalin is a movie about the rush to fill the power vacuum left in the Soviet Union in the days following the death of the regime’s leader, Joseph Stalin. If that sounds like serious subject matter, it’s not: the film is a comedy.

At least, that’s what I’m told. I left The Death of Stalin deeply confused about why anyone found any of this funny. I don’t think I laughed once, which is why I was surprised to hear that my usually wise friend Peter Coutu loved this movie. Like, is obsessed with it. So I thought we could have an objective debate here about why he’s wrong.

Welcome back to Skooby Watches Movies, Peter! Tell me: what do you like about The Death of Stalin, and why are you so wrong?

Peter Coutu: The Death of Stalin isn’t a good film — it’s a great one. It makes me so sad that you weren’t able to enjoy the movie because I loved everything about it! The settings were vivid, the dialogue was sharp, the physical comedy was often laugh-out-loud funny (I was hooked into the comedy of it from the very first scene), the historical elements were accurate and detailed, and the pacing was perfect. I never found myself bored because the movie moved so quick, not lingering too long on any one scene or joke.

As a history buff whose favorite movies are often funny, The Death of Stalin was perfect for me. In the pitch-black comedy, it’s not exactly clear when you’re supposed to laugh, which is wonderful! The entire film was a seamless transition between funny, tense, horrific and back to funny. It’s a shame that so much of it flew over your head.

JS: See, I think a lot of this movie did fly over my head. That’s not a problem with me, though: that’s a problem with the movie itself. I like historical dramas! For example: I loved Dunkirk, an event I didn’t know much about going in; I love Lincoln, and Patton, and Milk. These are not stories that I had thorough background knowledge of before I saw the movies, but I still appreciated them.

When a movie covers a historical event, whether it’s serious or comedic or somewhere in between, it’s the movie’s responsibility to help me understand it. I shouldn’t have to be a Russian history buff to appreciate what the movie is doing.

The ads that I’m seeing for The Death of Stalin on Facebook call it an “unbelievably timely farce.” That sounds like the movie isn’t just trying to be about Russian history; it’s trying to say something about today. I had no idea what that something was. How is The Death of Stalin relevant now?

PC: I know you ended with a question, but I’m going to respond to your first points because they are just so completely wrong. The film does help people understand all the necessary context: Stalin is old, his power is absolute, a cult of personality surrounds him and millions of people are living in terror. You don’t need to know much more to get the movie. There are little details that reward people who know the history well, such as Lavrenti Beria giving flowers to the women he assaults to put up the appearance of consent. That makes him all the more revolting, but you certainly don’t need to be well-versed in the history of the Soviet Union to get the film, partially because the major players are so well constructed (with very funny slo-mo introductions). Beria is controlling. Nikita Khrushchev is scheming and political. Zhukov is the big swinging dick. This is all clearly established early on in the film.

The type of comedy — namely the physical elements — make the film so universally enjoyable, even with the backdrop of heinous violence. The immediate fight for power while still struggling to put up a facade of reverence for the now-dead Stalin is hysterical. Seeing each member file in, faking grief and then immediately being taken out of it when kneeling in piss is so fucking funny. So is the arduous process of carrying Stalin to his bed. And so is Stalin’s son struggle to get a gun (thinking of the grunts and staring still makes me laugh). Armando Iannucci keeps all of these scenes tense and funny, and it works so well.

Now, for your question: Of course this movie is timely! First of all, good satire is timeless. And there are specific critiques. You could look at the committee meetings, with the long pauses between “passed” and “unanimously,” as a critique of consensus culture and cult of personalities. But the bigger point is a critique of dictatorships and government systems, of powerful men and the systems where they’re working. With reports of Trump asking for pledges of loyalty, how can you say this movie is not timely? I’m focusing on America, but it’s also applicable in so many other countries.

JS: Ok, so: The Death of Stalin is a critique of authoritarian governments, and the powerful men who run them. We currently live in a time of authoritarian governments with powerful men who run them, so this is relevant. that it? If that’s the critique driving this satire, then I’m out on it. I had the same issue with In The Loop, director Armando Iannucci’s last feature film. Yes, it’s a comedic take on real-life, high-stakes political events. And In The Loop is also about inept men who exacerbate the whole situation. But both of these films are missing what I think make great satire, and not merely comedic observation.

I know I’m very much in the critical minority on this, because everyone loves The Death of Stalin. I think critics might just be missing Dr. Strangelove, though, or something like it. Iannucci’s films are in the same vein, but lack two essential components that Kubrick put into Strangelove, the greatest satire film of all time.

First, a good satire should go beyond our reality, but stays within the realm of possibility. Here’s a quote I found about satire when I just Googled “what makes a good satire” that I enjoy: “Satire is effective — or at least most effective — only when at first it seems ridiculous, and then as it goes on and you begin to reflect on it, you realize it’s barely exaggerated at all.” This applies to Dr. Strangelove: the film is bonkers. A paranoid military leader thinks everyone is trying to steal his bodily fluids and another man rides a nuclear bomb like a mechanical bull to his own oblivion, and that’s without even getting into whatever Dr. Strangelove himself is.

But when you take a step back, you realize that everything that happens in the film isn’t too far from a very scary reality. In Iannucci’s films, the humor is just way too dry for me. There’s almost zero exaggeration. All of the social positioning after Stalin’s death? Yeah, I can pretty much see all of that happening. And because of this lack of imagination, Iannucci’s criticisms feel like they lack teeth.

And second, satire shouldn’t just be observation: it should have something to say about what it’s observing. Dr. Strangelove has such specific commentaries on how we got ourselves into the situation in that film. But The Death of Stalin just feels like a criticism of ineptitude in general, rather than anything more specific.

PC: Of course that critique isn’t everything good about the movie, it was just an explanation of relevance.

When I first read through your response, I thought you changed your mind — that quote you shared perfectly describes The Death of Stalin. The farce of forcing random people (preferably fat ones for the acoustic effect) off the street to listen to an orchestra replay a live performance (led by a new conductor dragged out of his house and still in his pajamas) just to record it for Stalin (all under the assurance of no one will die if they applaud) is absurd. That immediately drew me in. Of course this movie isn’t as zany as Dr. Strangelove, but that doesn’t mean it’s a worse satire. There is more of a constant tension between laughing and fear, and that’s the whole point!

Yes, a lot of the humor is very dry, which may not be for everyone. But still the balance between reality and absurdist slapstick comedy — some of the physical comedy feels like it could be worked into a Three Stooges’ movie — works so well here. The realization your quote mentions comes gradually throughout the entire movie. The final “trial” and execution, which almost entirely departs from the rest of the film’s comedy, of Beria is frighteningly realistic and claustrophobic and so well done.

JS: Yeah, I guess that tension between laughter and fear was never there for me: it leaned way more heavily toward docudrama than dramedy. That conductor scene? I felt his fear for his life, but it didn’t feel funny, because a) there was an air of fear hanging over every moment and b) all of these things were too feasible for me to serve as exaggeration. Perhaps part of our disagreement comes from the viewing experience itself: the theater I was in was dead silent throughout the movie.

In the spirit of not falling into the same endless bickering that defines the numbskulls in The Death of Stalin, I will call out the couple performances I did enjoy: Jason Isaacs provided a much-needed jolt of energy as the brash military leader Field Marshal Zhukov, and Andrea Riseborough was wonderfully incredulous at everything going on as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, and inserted some real human emotion into a mostly stale slew of performances.

PC: My theater (the Lagoon in Minneapolis) was full and lively. Though, I do worry that the name of the movie will give people the wrong expectation going in. The audience I was with seemed to be nervously laughing at first, almost unsure if it was appropriate for the film, before the movie really got its footing. It was even tough convincing anyone to come with me because they thought it was going to be a historical drama.

I’ll ignore your attempted slight — even though I loved the numbskulls’ bickering! — and do a quick round-up of my highlights and lowlights from the film. The good: Isaacs stole every scene, the ongoing gag of Stalin’s son trying to cover up the Soviet plane crashing was so funny, the settings were truly terrific and every actor speaking in different accents made the dialogue move so quick. The not-so-good: It was too short, feeling a bit rushed toward the end, and Jeffrey Tambor played Georgy Malenkov as a bit too weak. That’s really all I have, it was a thoroughly fantastic movie.

JS: That’s all fair. Except for the movie being too short part. I couldn’t wait for it to be over by the end of the film, to be honest.

Anyway, that about wraps it up for me. I don’t think either of our opinions really changed at all, but I had a blast. Any final thoughts?

PC: if anything, my appreciation for The Death of Stalin has grown since the start of this discussion. I had a blast, and I can’t wait for the next time you’re (incredibly) wrong about a movie so we can do this again.

JS: Anytime, comrade.