The Death of Stalin [Review by CLGJr]
Hannah Arendt long ago suggested that humanity’s most immoral acts might not be so special after all. If the Third Reich’s reign of genocide gave us the “banality of evil,” can any harm we inflict on each other ever truly be horrific? I’ll leave that question to the political philosophers. In the meantime, “The Death of Stalin” submits that history’s worst figures should wither under our mocking gaze rather than control us with fear. It’s an unsettling experience, but a rowdy, peculiar romp of historical fiction.
Armando Iannucci, our preeminent film and television provocateur, pulls back the Politburo curtain in May 1953. The titular event leaves a monumental gap in Soviet leadership. A writer known for lacing his acerbic humor with jaw-droppingly creative profanity reduces some of the period’s most fabled monsters into shambling nincompoops. (Seriously, partake sometime in a Selina Meyer turn of phrase on “Veep” if that’s not a part of your pop culture diet.) Stalin infamously hosted late-night drinking and John Ford soirées for his inner circle. He forced them to really lean into that whole comrade thing. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, droll as ever) even keeps a running list of which dinner jokes met with the General Secretary’s approval. A stray remark could land anyone’s name on the secret police list administered by the bulldog-bear hybrid Lavrentiy Beria (a magnificent Simon Russell Beale). His forces, the NKVD, carry out torture and executions with more causal cruelty than rapid efficiency once he doles out assignments like an auto-pilot Sorkinite wandering the Kremlin halls.
After one of those boys’ nights, Stalin keels over and is found the next morning lying in a pool of his own micturition. The rest of the Committee, introduced in hilarious slo-mo title cards, rush to his side and commence scheming for power through their crocodile tears. We catch sight of Stalin’s Deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the Minister of Foreign Trade, Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and the Minster of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin in fine, understated form) flailing about, calling for the doctors that their departed leader had shipped off to the gulags. The ensuing tragicomedy largely pits Khrushchev against Beria for the position of chief apparatchik. All this occurs against the backdrop of Stalin’s funeral ceremonies and the pro forma ascension of Malenkov to Stalin’s vacated seat. Never has the pall of death been so whimsical.
The film’s central charm lies in these casting decisions. The all-American and British ensemble speak in their native accents, making the farce more powerful than if they had attempted Russian pronunciations. This must be Iannucci’s most restrained script, perhaps out of respect for the true horrors committed under these men’s watch. It might also be that “Niki” and his friends’ callous ineptitude casts them in a far more damning light than a barrage of f-bombs ever could. The result is troubling, but delightful, tension between the impulse to cackle and a reminder of the appalling context. It’s accomplished brilliantly, so much so that the film was banned in Russia shortly after its premiere. The film would force any actual (or pretend) autocrat to face the truth that he usually wears no clothes.
In these geopolitical times, “The Death of Stalin” succeeds as artistic balm. As the Committee’s more ambitious members jockey for power, they reveal how childish the endeavor can be. Watch Khrushchev racing Beria out of the woods to fawn over “the old man’s” surviving daughter. Notice how the committee reaches unanimity through schoolyard peer pressure. Even Khrushchev’s collusion with the Army to oust the NKVD from Moscow seems like rollicking fun. The movie is worth your attention for Beale’s performance alone. Supporting work from Jason Isaacs as a perturbed Army officer and Jonathan Aris as a funeral director from the ninth circle of hell are equally outstanding. We already know this is the send-up that Putin couldn’t handle; it’s doubtful that Comrade Stalin would have approved either. Audiences of the world, unite!
CLGJr Verdict: Iannucci pulls no punches. While skewering the middle-period Soviet regime he also pokes ribald fun at familiar reflections of contemporary world leaders. This is dark comedy that manages, like his best work, to produce as many guffaws as grimaces.
The Death of Stalin opened in theaters on Friday, March 9.
Never miss a review — sign up for email updates to the right, or like The Parsing Haus on Facebook!