MOVIE REVIEW: The Death of Stalin




Hot damn, you know your satire is magma-level hot when you offend the powers-that-be of a country enough to ban your film from playing on their soil.  Labeled as “extremist” and a “provocation” enough to spark tabloid headlines like “the film Hitler could have made,” Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin wears a giant badge of pride next to a tiny medallion of shame on its cinematic uniform on being banned in four nations: Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.  Chronicling a calamitous change of power after the titular passing of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, The Death of Stalin stings with a comedic social commentary that seeks to perturb with jest and depravity.  

Stomping around the halls of government in Iannucci’s film is a rich ensemble of British and American actors and actresses hungry with an appetite to chew up and spit out annals of Soviet history from 1953.  Since World War II, a collective nation has long bent backward to the will of Josef Stalin (stage vet Adrian McLoughlin). What Stalin wants he gets, no matter if that is a piano concert recording, criminals in gulags, or the laundry list of death sentences carried out.  

The chief and loyal underling who keeps Stalin happy with performing those varied duties is Lavrentiy Beria (Penny Dreadful’s Simon Russell Beale), the Minister of Internal Affairs.  Beria’s fellow Presidium council of committee leaders includes the clueless First Deputy Georgy Malenkov (Emmy winner Jeffrey Tambor), the antiquated Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python troupe mainstay Michael Palin), and the bossy reformer-in-waiting Nikita Khrushchev (a top-lining Steve Buscemi).  Also riding Stalin’s coattails are two of his adult children, the distraught Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough of Birdman) and spoiled Vasily (Hitman: Agent 47 star Rupert Friend).  

LESSON #1: LAUGH AT YOUR BOSS’S JOKES-- When the ominous man who oversaw the purging execution of over 650,000 of his own people and imprisonment of over 1.5 million more asks you to jump, you don’t stop and ask how high.  You jump like your feet on hot coals. Appease this man and keep him happy. Buy into his program or you’ll end up towards Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: DON’T GET ON THE WRONG LIST-- All of the aforementioned members of this inner governing circle would love to be in a better situation, but you don’t cross the boss.  Act out and you get your name on scroll worse than Santa’s naughty list where your lump of coal is a bullet to the brain.

When the reigning despot suffers a stroke and dies soon after, the news comes with shock, awe, and fountains of fluster.  The ensuing power vacuum girds everyone’s loins to seize their opportunity with Malenkov first in line, much to his rivals’ chagrin.  The final wildcard who inserts himself into the pseudo-political fray with the talk of a coup d’etat rumbling is the decorated brute and Field Marshal (and big swinging dick) of the Red Army Georgy Zhukov (professional movie villain Jason Isaacs).  All the pieces on this Communist chess board attempt to carry public favor with half-hearted benevolent acts and political plays opposite to the former Stalinist ways.  Underneath these facades, everyone is armed with proverbial knives ready to insert into the backs of anyone and everyone who crosses their desired personal agendas.

Iannucci’s film is an actors showcase that would play just as well on a Broadway or West End stage with minimalism as it does on the silver screen with more lavish production value to make everything appropriately louder.  Sharps gags and line deliveries are telegraphed by the strength of each performer. The title might say Stalin but Beale’s Beria is the true heavy of the film and the actor makes him a tough bugger ready to deflect any target on his back.  Tambor and Palin’s talents for blank stupidity are pitch perfect. They clash well with Buscemi’s destructive f-bombs and Isaacs’ sinister traits of braggadocio. Even smaller roles from Paddy Considine and Olga Kurylenko trigger cheeky snickers and sly delight.

The frolic of frazzle that ensues with the succession of power in The Death of Stalin can be quite comical, squeezed from its graphic novel source of the same name created by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.  Smart as it may be, nothing is every fall-out-of-your-seat funny. Also, the violent reality of the true story being lampooned for laughs hangs over the show with a tinge of creepiness.  You feel dirty after sharing glee with this twisted history. Nevertheless, the whips of wit are there from Iannucci and his fellow writers and frequent TV collaborators David Schneider (Uncle Max), Ian Martin (The Thick of It), and Peter Fellows (Veep).  The Death of Stalin is its own firing squad armed with a specialized brand of heinous hilarity.

LESSON #3: ACT FAST OR BE DEAD-- This final lesson goes for the internal characters and the external audience alike.  Once the Kremlin Highlander bite it, there is no time for inaction among his political and familial heirs.  Move without initiative and they are libel to be doomed to more than the back of the line. The same goes for this film’s humor.  No one is going to sit next to you with a Social Studies textbook to explain the politics being skewered or a stack of baseball cards that tell you who is who.  Catch their drift or be lost from the fun.