The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci
Year of release: 2018
Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes
Satirizing political corruption and the three-ring circus that is democracy seems so germane as to be nearly irrelevant these days. Writer-director Armando Iannucci, of In the Loop and HBO's Veep fame, certainly knows his way around vulgar political farce, but is there really room for laughing at totalitarian ideology, buffoonish monsters in power, and the massacring of innocent Russian citizens?
Innaucci's latest film. The Death of Stalin, makes good on its title, with dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suddenly kicking the bucket, leaving his cabinet of bumbling advisers; including Communist leader in waiting Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), counsel members Nikita Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Beale) scrambling to gain control. Though less snappy than In The Loop and not quite as razor-sharp as Veep, The Death of Stalin reminds us how history's monstrous rulers were beyond inept, stumbling their way into positions of power in a manner verging on pure absurdity. The crimes perpetuated during Stallinist Russia circa 1953 are not minimized here, but are conduits for us to see the proximity between savagery and ineptitude. In a way, the film is mostly funny because it reveals clownishness as the main impetus for political control.
Using a game cast speaking in American and cockney accents rattling off ping-pong dialogue, The Death of Stalin is not stretching the facts too much here--the cabinet member's wrestling for power plays fairly realistically--while indulging in a few broad sight gags and over the top performances. Jason Isaacs as Soviet Red Army officer Zhukov and Stalin's spoiled children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) are cartoonishly portrayed, while Michael Palin finds subtle humor and pathos as Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, whose own wife has already been arrested via Stalin's massive witch hunt while he remains true to the party line. Buscemi and Beale deliver the film's sharpest performances; partly because they never go for obvious comedic affectations, playing Kruschchev and Beria as pawns in a deadly system who nonetheless jostle for supremacy with a mixture of sarcasm and dead-eyed resolve. Extended sequences involving kneeling in urine, a Radio Moscow concert performance forced to repeat, and a shuffling of places in line during Stalin's humorously pompous funeral are highlights, and the rapid-fire dialogue has so many barbs per minute that the film will surely improve on subsequent viewings.
The idea of blind trust in authority is at the heart of The Death of Stalin. Both it's comedic mojo and tragic undercurrents stem from the queasy marriage of ideology and morality, with policy changing on a whim due to the shifting political landscape. The outbursts of violence and wide scale death lists issued by Stalin's brutal regime often tamp down the laughs as the film moves toward its bleak climax, but there's a method to Innanuci's madcap madness. Whether it be Stalin, Putin, or our own incompetent leader, there's a lacerating point being made here about submission to power; and that's something that can only be laughed at for so long.