The year 2018 has made us all connoisseurs of misrule. Thus Armando Iannucci’s speedy farce, The Death of Stalin, has relevance. Still, at a recent San Francisco appearance, Iannucci stressed that he shot the film in the summer of 2016, lest viewers suspect it was some sort of allusion to the court of Trump. (Putin didn’t like it—it was banned in Russia.)
The movie finds comedy in the plight of shivering people, fearing the knock on the door in the middle of the night. And it lampoons that infuriating boredom that comes from serving a man who always, always must be right.
One evening in 1953, the highest executives of the USSR are socializing with Stalin. As played by Adrian McLoughlin, this enemy of mankind is smaller than you’d expect. He gathers his cohorts to watch an old cowboy movie in a language they don’t understand. Later that night, Stalin is struck by a brain hemorrhage; he’s flat on the floor in a large puddle of piss, which will soon be diluted by the crocodile tears of Stalin’s staff. No one wants to be the first to call a doctor, in case he wakes up. The dictator dies, and there is no clear designated successor. However, the portly bespectacled Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD secret police, and a sadist and rapist who has kompromat on everyone, aims to be Stalin II.
The contenders are nervous weaklings. The darkest horse among them is the diplomat Molotov (Michael Palin, perfect in this part as a man corroded by tyranny). Molotov tries to stay on Beria’s good side even though the secret police chief arrested Molotov’s wife. Meanwhile, the weird, trout-faced Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambour) oversees the transition team, while fussing over his official portrait.
No one realizes that Nikita Khrushchev, not a prepossessing man, will be the most skilled of the plotters. Steve Buscemi is the last actor you’d think of to play a stocky, warty mid-century Soviet politician. Yet the cross-casting wins. He gives this comedy of terror some warmth and sanity.
Like Stalin, Khrushchev was a killer—he admitted later that he had blood on his hands (“up to the elbow,” he lamented). Yet Iannucci was intelligent to pick Khrushchev as the one we root for. There’s something about him that invites nostalgia—for a dictator, he was quite human.
Khrushchev just wanted to go to Disneyland, after all. Were Iannucci as soft as Capra or Spielberg, he could have staged Khrushchev’s real-life heroic moment, when he took the serious risk of telling the 20th Party Congress that they no longer needed to quake in terror in front of Stalin’s dirty underwear.
Buscemi burlesques this hard-headed boss as an antsy, anxious nebbish—able to fawn, while trusting no one. As on The Sopranos, he’s a jester to terrifying people. (He tries to entertain Stalin with a ridiculous story about how they used to play hot potato with live grenades back in winter in Stalingrad, just to keep their hands warm.) He has Woody Allen-worthy delivery when he introduces the fearsome Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs); the officer makes his grand entrance, whipping off his cloak to show off a chest gleaming with medals. Khrushchev mutters, “He planted the flag on Hitler’s tomb or knocked out a bear with one punch, I forget which.”
The hapless Khrushchev is volun-told, as they say, to stage Stalin’s funeral, a fiasco not just limited to the guest of honor’s casket, equipped with a plexiglass dome like a midget submarine. The funeral is overstuffed with bushels of red roses, odd foreigners, bumpkins in fur hats, and even forbidden Orthodox bishops coming out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, Khrushchev desperately tries to protect Stalin’s children: Vasily (Rupert Friend), the boss’s incapable drunken son, who delivers a seriously egregious funeral speech; secondly, the pale, shell-shocked Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough, hardly recognizable from her part as the dreamy hippie love interest in Battle of the Sexes).
Russian accents are the king of comedic dialects. Yet the cast keeps their own voices, for the same reason that actors perform Shakespeare in modern dress—so we can tell the posh people from the proles. (Isaacs’ Zhukov talks like a British army sergeant major—it’s a John Cleese interpretation of the hero of the war.) The natural accents add a level of comedic distance to this tale of woe and murder.
Like the ’60s British political comedies it resembles, The Death of Stalin may be too clever, too mordant. But it does have tang, Tom Stoppard-like wordplay and some big and surprising laughs. What’s best about this razory comedy is that just from the tone, you can tell the difference between what’s true and what’s too good to be true, and there’s more of the former than the latter.
The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin and Michael Palin.
R; 107 minutes.