DEATH OF STALIN (Directed by Armando Iannucci, 107 minutes, 2018, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITICThe Death of Stalin is a hilariously morose comedy based on the French graphic novel La mort de Staline by Fabien Nury (Les chroniques de Legion). Director Armando Iannucci (Veep) brings his razor-sharp eye for political satire to Stalinist Russia without skipping a beat in a film that is way more relevant than it has any right to be today. The director even opted to “tone down real-life absurdity” to make the film, which has been banned in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan a bit more believable. Assisted by the talents of such comedic geniuses as Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor, The Death of Stalin is easily one of the funniest films of 2018.
The film is not only about the death of Stalin, as the title would suggest, but life under the dictator and the bumbling coup that would soon follow. When a scathing letter from a pianist paralyzes the dictator with a cerebral hemorrhage, it triggers into motion a bizarre chain of events that unleashes the blood thirsty ambitions of his Central Committee. Chief among them NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who was responsible for “The Great Purge” that killed almost 600,000 Russians who were suspected of being disloyal to Stalin and Mother Russia. When Beria finds Stalin lying on the carpet clinging to life in a puddle of his own urine, he commences plotting his own rise to power, before alerting the other Committee members, or even getting help. After pilfering Stalin’s desk for confidential files filled with blackmail-worthy dirt on his colleagues, he orders the Red Army out of Moscow, relinquishing their duties to the NKVD and sealing off the city. Surprisingly, Steve Buscemi steals the film with one of the best performances of his career as Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev. He is charged with playing an intense game of cat and mouse with the Beria, who makes the mistake of underestimating the man’s ambition.
The Machiavellian game is then set into motion as each opportunistic member of the Central Committee arrives and immediately begins working their own angle to be the next supreme leader. The comedic vibe here is pitch black as the Committee simply stands around watching Stalin die while lamenting that there aren’t any decent doctors left, because Stalin had them all killed out of fear of being poisoned. It’s this kind of idiotic criminal complicitness that brings to mind the Trump administration and true to form the Committee spends the rest of the film scheming against one another as to who will be left to run the country after Stalin’s funeral.
As such, The Death of Stalin strikes a tricky tone, but it rings true. The events portrayed in the film happened 65 years ago, and that distance gives us the ability to laugh at this very dark chapter in this country’s history. Armando Iannucci succeeds in crafting a comedy that is equally hilarious as it is genuinely terrifying as we bear witness the absurd lengths men will go to not only save their necks but take complete advantage of a terrible situation to better their own standing. While the film paints the political intrigue in shades of gloriously bleak gallows humor, the violence is portrayed in ways that are shockingly unfunny. It’s a dichotomy Iannucci uses to remind the audience that these bumbling characters — as funny as they may be — are still terrible human beings responsible for innumerable atrocities.