There are few better than writer/director Armando Iannucci when it comes to portraying the poison personalities, ruthless double dealing, and heights of absurdity in the political halls of power. So far, he’s sharpened his knives and cut up The White House and 10 Downing Street with “Veep,” “The Thick Of It,” and “In The Loop.” But at a time when The West Wing is more than ably creating scenarios that are the stuff of comic writers’ dreams, it’s the perfect opportunity for Iannucci to take on a different era and moment in history, and he does just that with “The Death Of Stalin.” However, who would’ve thought a movie about the death of an unpredictable dictator would be just as timely as ever?
It’s Moscow 1953, and Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) retains a firm grip on the seat of power in Russia, keeping his place by summarily getting rid of anybody who might remotely put up any kind of dissent. Those around him — Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) — humor the whims and moods of their leader, both to curry political favor, and to make sure their necks aren’t next to hang. However, when Stalin keels over and is discovered in a puddle of his own piss, each of the leader’s hangers-on immediately start jockeying for their long-awaited chance to finally wield their own influence inside the Kremlin. No one is safe, either politically or physically, and this atmosphere of backstabbing and treachery is delightfully in Iannucci’s wheelhouse.
While Malenkov takes the temporary position as the head of state, he’s ineffectual and indecisive, leaving Khrushchev and Beria eager to sway him to their side. Meanwhile, Molotov (Michael Palin), uncertain what to do with the rapidly changing climate around him, clings to Stalinism like a lifeboat, as he waits to see who to align himself with. War hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), chest affixed with medals, sees his chance to get the army a seat at the table, after having been pushed aside by Stalin’s secret police. Stalin’s children, the grief-stricken Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the conspiracy and alcohol fuelled Vasily (Rupert Friend) try to figure out where they’ll stand after the dust settles, and needless to say, everyone working at cross purposes creates a hilarious madhouse, with one character accurately quipping, “I’ve had nightmares that make more sense than this.”
While Iannucci makes the most of mocking the hypocrisy of authoritarian states, where established rules are routinely broken by those who make them, his perspective on how power changes hands, resonates across a broader political spectrum. “The Death Of Stalin” sees gestures made toward reform into a post-Stalin world, with Kruschchev in particular making an earnest pitch to stay the brutal treatment and killings of those incarcerated by the state. But having only known one way of doing things, these politicians still turn toward violent solutions to meet their goals. Iannucci finds great fun in having these characters say one thing and do another, but there is a bleakness here too. Based on historical events, there is a sobering punch to the film, particularly in its latter stages, when the reality sinks in that Stalin’s death has only resulted in someone else keeping a brutal hold on their political seat.
It’s tricky act to pull off, but Iannucci has always been sharply observant of the complex motivations that fuel political behavior, and he doesn’t miss a beat here. It also helps that he’s not particularly concerned with absolute fidelity to history. The mix of American, British, and Russian actors (Olga Kurylenko also has a small role) may serve a passing resemblance to their real life counterparts, but they are left to deliver each devastating one liner in their own accents. The set and production design evokes the era, but it’s really just a stage for the terrific screenplay which does all the thematic heavy lifting required, thanks to an ensemble who relish each syllable they’re given. There’s not a dud turn in the bunch, and it’s hard to even pick a standout, but Buscemi, Isaacs, and Friend are particularly memorable, but that may just be because they have the showiest parts. Beale also deserves special attention for his slickly evil and conniving Beria.
Particularly at a time that has seen American leadership swing from eight years of “hope” under Barack Obama, to an administration fixated on xenophobia and division, “The Death Of Stalin” is a grim reminder that we are never too far away from history turning back on progress. It’s not an easy lesson to reconcile, but Iannucci at least has us laughing for a good while before delivering his devastating blow. [B+]