Film Reviews

How to Become a Tyrant

Published July 17, 2021
Kim Il-sung & his boy. "You need to do more than build a movement, You need to be the movement. "

Politics is a fascinating game, but hard to win. Under the yoke of a tyrant people clamour for democracy but after generations of democratic rule they hanker for a strongman to come and make all their decisions for them. As we watch the United States careening towards a complete crack-up, with millions of people obsessed with conspiracy theories, bristling with murderous hatred of their political opponents, there couldn’t be a better time for a TV series such as How to Become a Tyrant.

In an effort to make the outlines of history accessible to the broadest possible audience the series is divided into six half-hour episodes, each focussing on the lessons to be learned from a famous despot. The invisible narrator is Peter Dinklage, the little man with a big, rich voice, who addresses us in the second-person, in disarmingly cheerful tones. Expert commentary is provided by a stellar cast of historians.

The series plays like a YouTube instruction manual for would-be tyrants, continually reverting to a leather-covered tome called The Playbook, which outlines the necessary steps to becoming a successful dictator. It’s not so different from those cooking programs that ask the viewer to follow a recipe, although many will find the results profoundly indigestible.

The chapters are: 1. Seize Power (Hitler), 2. Crush Your Rivals (Saddam), 3. Reign through Terror (Idi Amin) 4. Control the Truth (Stalin), 5. Create a New Society (Gaddafi), 6. Rule Forever (Kim Il-sung and family).

Each installment leads us through a simple set of rules, illustrated with archival footage from the featured tyrant’s reign and lengthy animated sequences that add to the weird feeling of comedy and carnival that permeates these programs. This is reinforced by zany archival inserts that have nothing to do with the relevant dictator.

It takes a little time to become accustomed to all this jollity as the subject matter usually entails treachery, racism, torture, famine, war, and the deaths of perhaps millions of people, all in accordance with the whims of one monstrous narcissist. It’s the power of the old footage and the compelling nature of the stories that keeps one glued to the screen. I had no trouble binge-watching all six episodes, while never feeling exactly comfortable with the format.

How to be a Tyrant may owe a debt to Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017), which took the bold decision to present the demise of the great dictator as a black comedy. Although played for laughs the events recounted in the movie never deviated far from the historical record.

The litany of horror is so relentless in How to Become a Tyrant it begs the obvious question: “Why would anyone endure life under a dictatorship?”

Well, according to a survey conducted by the Australian National University in 2018, 33% of Australians believe it would be “very good” or “fairly good” to be ruled by a strongman who didn’t bother about parliament or elections. All those who do not value the right to vote might do well to watch this series.

Dinklage tells us “tyranny is government for people who want results”. In other words, for those who are bored or frustrated by the slow-moving processes of democracy, or who believe all politicians are hopelessly corrupt. These people have a long list of grievances against the system and the life choices it imposes on us.

The first step to becoming a successful tyrant is to tap into these feelings of discontent, to stir up hatred against everything the masses already distrust – whether it be politicians, intellectuals, another race or religion. The appeal of the demagogue is that he is “giving people permission to be themselves” – to hate the people they want to hate. Hitler played on popular resentment against the Jews, Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda. These tactics enjoyed widespread approval.

At the beginning of their reign many tyrants are greeted with rapturous enthusiasm. Idi Amin was nicknamed “Big Daddy” or “the gentle giant”, before he revealed his true nature, which resulted in the disappearances of approximately 300,000 Ugandans. Colonel Gaddafi came to power on a wave of popularity and a platform of genuine reform. He  would remain in charge for 42 years, growing steadily more quixotic and brutal, until he literally died in a ditch.

For a tyrant the real problems begin when he (it’s always “he”, unless we count Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi), is installed as supreme leader. After the first happy days lots of irritating problems appear, notably rebellious, ungrateful citizens or friends and comrades plotting to take your job.

When it comes to dealing with rebellions and rivals, Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin provide the most effective lessons. Saddam was a master of deterrents. He once called a party assembly and read out the names of people he had identified as disloyal. They were removed one by one from the chamber. Twenty were condemned to be executed, with their accused colleagues forced to pull the triggers. Another refinement was to have his two sons-in-law killed, then have the bodies dragged through Baghdad behind a car.

It was even more dangerous to be one of Stalin’s inner circle. No despot has ever been more willing to have his friends arrested, put on trial and executed. The show trials of the 1930s began as a purge of the Central Committee and ended as a reign of terror that saw an estimated 750,000 liquidated – many of them by a quota system. Stalin believed it was better to kill a few innocent people rather than let an enemy go free. He reputedly said: “If you kill 100 people and five of them were enemies of the people, that’s not a bad ratio.”

Stalin would perfect the cult of personality that made him a God-like figure to his subjects. By dint of rigorous censorship and control of the media he ensured that only the right messages were conveyed to the public. He then set about constructing an alternative reality, rewriting history in his own image; bending art, literature, and even science, to his will.

Stalin’s megalomania led to many aburdities but he seems straight-laced alongside Gaddafi, who not only eliminated trade unions and a free press, but banned the metric system, the hailing of taxis, and imported chickens. He rearranged the school curriculum even more radically than Stalin, getting rid of history, geography and foreign languages, supplying one major object of study: The Green Book, that he personally authored.

Although adultery was banned Gaddafi surrounded himself with his own Amazonian Brigade, composed of hundreds of beautiful women who had the honour of serving as the Colonel’s body guards and sex slaves. It seems that one of the benefits of tyranthood is to create a world in which all your fantasies may be fulfilled. The danger, as Gaddafi found out, arrives when you lose sight of the Playbook and your dream world comes crashing down.

That hasn’t happened yet to Kim Il-sung’s dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since 1948. Kim learned most of his tricks from hs neighbour, Stalin, adding a touch of native self-reliance called “Juche”. He also took pains to keep his country isolated from the rest of the world – a strategy that remains in force today.

When Kim Jong-il took over from the old man he felt it was useful to circulate a few stirring facts about himself. The population were informed that the first time The Dear Leader played golf he made eleven holes-in-one. He had written 1,500 books and had no need for a toilet because he was such a perfect physical specimen. Oh yes, he also invented the hamburger – which would have been cheering news for a population dying from famine.

It may sound crazy but it works. Fatboy Kim Jong-un is now the third dictator in the family, and has found there’s nothing like nuclear weapons to win a little international R-E-S-P-E-C-T. He provides the happy ending to this tale of six tyrannies, because Kim’s ongoing rule proves the Playbook actually works.

At no stage does the name “Trump” appear in this rollicking series, but it will not be lost on most viewers that all the things the great tyrants did in the early stages of their careers, have been repeated – albeit in somewhat parodic fashion – in the United States over the past five years. Someone has been reading the Playbook to Trump, but he hasn’t been listening. He’s good on scapegoats, rallies, lies, purges, villifying enemies, alternative realities, undermining the rule of law and nurturing a cult of personality, but something keeps going wrong. The storming of the Capitol on 6 January now looks like his version of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 – a miscalculation that sent the Nazi leader to prison and almost derailled his big plans. Instead, in the solitude of his cell, Hitler wrote his manifesto, Mein Kampf, which became a sacred text for generations of bloodthirsty fanatics. Although the prison bit looms as a possible future for the 45th President it appears that none of the big publishers are willing to offer him a book contract.




How to Become a Tyrant

Directed by Ron Myrick

Starring Peter Dinklage, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Waller Newell, Andrew Sullivan, Guy Walters, Wendy Lower, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Jonathan Brent

USA, rated MA 15+, 6 episodes of 30 mins each


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 July, 2021