The Death of Stalin
2018, R, 107 min. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 16, 2018
Can’t keep your Molotov straight from your Malenkov? No problem. A sure grasp of midcentury Soviet history isn’t required to appreciate this latest political satire from Britain’s Armando Iannucci. The Death of Stalin isn’t so far removed from the contemporary comedies that brought him international acclaim, the feature film In the Loop, which skewered the political skullduggery that led to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and HBO sitcom Veep, a merry farce of the executive branch. They’re all in their own way variations on the same themes – power’s corrupting influence, and the scrambling sycophancy of those on the lower ladder rungs of power, just aching to be important enough to be corrupted. But what sets apart The Death of Stalin is its immediacy. There’s no arch remove, no abstraction. Its comic barbs breathe the same poisoned air as its brutish jolts of violence; even when we don’t see the trigger pulled, we’re still stepping in the blood spatter. For all the pratfalls, this is a grim, dispiriting work. It dares not to be liked, and there’s a lot to like in that daringness.
The titular death doesn’t happen right away. An amusing prologue meant to illustrate the degree to which a cowed people will jump to placate their premier (How high? This high?) is followed by an even grander obsequiousness in our first introduction to Stalin’s Politburo. They include the slickly nasty Beria (Beale), head of secret police; simpleton Malenkov (Tambor); and Khrushchev (Buscemi), who keeps his head down but fancies himself a reformer. Around a conference table, they gather to plot the next purge and try to score points with the boss. And then Stalin dies. Well, first he suffers a massive cerebral hemorrhage and pisses himself, a puddle his supplicants hilariously have to side-step, and then the film really gets cooking, as the Politburo scrabbles to replace dear Josef.
There’s a disorientation throughout that works in the film’s favor, as real life is re-drafted with a caricaturist’s pen. The Death of Stalin never mocks historical horrors. Instead, the broadness, the outrageousness, with which it dramatizes the banality of evil – its bureaucracy, too – is what makes it so very chilling, as in a scene of human liquidation dispatched with the order and efficiency of a stage set being struck. In another scene, Beria gives his lieutenant blocking for a deadly midnight raid, showing the same visionary flair as a movie director: “Shoot her first, but make sure he sees it.”
Intentionally, photorealism – an attempted facsimile of history – isn’t the goal here for Iannucci and his co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows (working from the comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin). Certainly not with a cast speaking mostly in British and American accents, these so-very-game character actors in a troupe that’s positively Lubitschian in its agility with razoring dialogue, its close-ups on weathered (read: interesting) faces. (It’s tempting to call this Iannucci’s To Be or Not to Be, but there’s just no hope for humanity here.)
Despite the outstanding work of the production and art departments in making The Death of Stalin seem believably of its era, what is most striking about the film is its timelessness – or, more to the point, its timeliness. As the warring members of the Politburo conspire and connive, in meeting rooms, bathrooms, and hallways, these Communist apparatchiks could easily be confused for titans of any industry, or the executive committee of your garden-variety frat. And that is perhaps The Death of Stalin’s most depressing takeaway – that all of history may be condensed to just another room where asshole alpha males jostle for power, and the rest of us poor slops pay powerfully for their hubris.