These are dark days indeed. Buffoons at the highest levels of government, people responsible for the safety and well-being of millions, are back-stabbing and jockeying for power in the most inept of ways. Here’s a comforting thought, though: it’s nothing new. Yes, our current situation may be unique in the minutiae, but there have always been corrupt jackasses in positions of power, and writer/director Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep) has a knack for bringing them down a few pegs. With his latest film, The Death of Stalin, he turns his eye away from fictional contemporary politics and toward non-fictional historical politics. The result will in some ways be familiar to fans of Iannucci, but, by setting this movie in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, he manages to make the comic proceedings disturbing in a way his previous work has not been.
The title is quite literal. Early in the film, despotic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin keels over, and, while the body is still splayed awkwardly on his office floor, his underlings are already scrambling to take his position. NKVD1 head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) starts manipulating into the job the rather dumb Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, the obligatory Milkshake Duck), viewing him as someone he can use as a puppet. Meanwhile, Party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi!) views Stalin’s passing as an opportunity for liberal reforms. Most of the rest of the film centers around the craven and bumbling conflict between Beria and Khrushchev, as well as the planning of Stalin’s funeral, with the rest of the cast being pinballed around by their plotting.
Despite the rather dry, documentary-sounding title (which I think may be a disadvantage when it comes to marketing) this movie is funny as hell. Iannucci has a talent for witty dialogue, but not in the Aaron Sorkin sense of witty characters being witty at each other.2 On the contrary, few of these characters are more than a three-quarter-wit, but the writing never descends to the boring “LOL DUMB PEOPLE” level. These people are behaving like idiots, but they’re behaving like idiotic, fallible humans. Combine that with Iannucci’s ability to milk as much awkwardness out of a scene as possible and you have comedy gold.
None of that writing would work without a good cast, and what a cast it is, including Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, as well as the legendary Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov. There isn’t a single off performance here. What helps is that Iannucci has eschewed the silly trope of depicting foreign language-speakers as speaking in accented English, in favor of simply having the actors speak normally. Considine sounds English and Buscemi sounds American, and the result is not at all distracting in the way that all of these great actors being saddled with Boris and Natasha accents would have been.
As funny as The Death of Stalin is, there is a very dark undercurrent to it. In the Loop, centered as it is on a joint UK/US push for an Iraq-style “military intervention,” is dark in its own way, but it’s not as much of a punch to the gut. The human cost of potential war is intentionally distanced from that movie’s bureaucratic proceedings, making the characters’ machinations seem even more heartless. You laugh at their dumbassery while wincing at the idea that their actions may lead to innocent children being killed by cluster bombs half a world away.
There is no such distance in The Death of Stalin, or at least not much of one. In some cases, these characters are acting out of career-oriented self-interest, while in others they are simply trying to stay alive. Molotov, for his part, starts off the film having just been added by Stalin to a list of enemies to be executed. Meanwhile, rapid-fire comedic dialogue is delivered by characters as they pass by rooms where people are being tortured or murdered or both. In some ways, the consequences of all this political squabbling will be judged by how many people will eventually get a bullet to the head and be airbrushed out of photos.
Some may find this juxtaposition of comedy and atrocity off-putting, and I won’t blame them. It’s not a film for everyone, and I’ve seen some very good arguments that it’s disrespectful to the victims of the Soviet regime to make light of said regime in this way; good arguments that I disagree with in the end. Beyond all the zaniness, there’s a subtext to The Death of Stalin of atrocities not being committed by monsters, but by human beings, motivated as much by fear and avarice and passivity as by hatred; that we’re all just a change of situation away from myopically, greedily fumbling around like morons while lives are in the balance. It’s a very timely film in that sense.
A while back, some of us in the Lewton Bus news room3 were discussing who should eventually make the definitive movie about the Trump administration. Some of us, including me, eventually settled on Paul Verhoeven as director. The writer? Iannucci. Wouldn’t that be glorious? C’mon, Armando, make this happen.