When a movie is called The Death of Stalin, spoiler alerts need not apply. The title character does, indeed, meet his ignominious end, less than a quarter of the way into this riotous satire. In March of 1953, Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), in the comfort of his office, is struck by a cerebral hemorrhage. He collapses to the carpet and loses consciousness. The members of his Central Committee find him the next morning in a puddle of his own urine.
This is pretty much the way it happened. All the contours of The Death of Stalin, which is based on a French graphic novel of the same name, are based at least on Soviet apocrypha, if not demonstrable fact. The film mostly chronicles the fraught days following Stalin’s unseemly demise, wherein the Machiavellian members of his committee gladhand and grandstand, scheme and subvert, install puppets and support military coups, coalescing in the assassination of one of their own. The real story was one of high drama and Game of Thrones blood sport, but the genius of co-writer/director Armando Iannucci is that he re-imagines this sordid history as a cable sitcom.
For most consumers of sophisticated, talky entertainment, Scotland’s Iannucci is probably not a household name, a la Aaron Sorkin. But his track record belies his low profile. He created the ruthless, revelatory series The Thick of It, which skewered British politics from an insider’s perspective, then did the same on the other side of the pond as showrunner of HBO’s Veep for its first four seasons.
Despite its potentially frosty historical setting, The Death of Stalin feels like the natural successor to these snappy series. It depicts frustrated cogs in the wheel of political tumult — strongmen-in-waiting, shifty opportunists and feckless bureaucrats — as they walk and talk, bicker and curse in the halls of power. These include, most memorably, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi at his most rodential; and Stalin’s direct successor Georgy Malenkov, portrayed by a milquetoast Jeffrey Tambor in a Hitler haircut.
Neither of these actors attempt a Russian accent. Everybody in Iannucci’s pitch-perfect ensemble acts unabashedly Anglo-American, from their diction to their pop-culture references. “I want to speak at my father’s funeral,” asserts Stalin’s drunken, mercurial son Vasily (Rupert Friend), to which Khrushchev retorts, “Well, I want to f**k Grace Kelly.” There’s a great bit about Malenkov, buttoned up in Communist Party regalia in a simulation of a strongman, admitting he wears a girdle under his uniform: “It’s purely functional, not cosmetic.”
Other exchanges achieve their impact with more pointed satirical heft. The Central Committee, having gathered around Stalin’s comatose body, realizes that finding a reputable physician in the midst of a totalitarian state won’t be easy: “All the good doctors are in the gulag or dead.” With every few surface-skating laugh lines that whiz by, there’s a cutting remark like this that puts the surreal reality of authoritarianism into perspective.
The Death of Stalin feels in every way like a TV project adopted for film, including the less desirable ones. The camerawork, for instance, is like Tambor’s girdle — functional but hardly cinematic. It’s still a must-see political satire, with content, if not form, harking back to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It’s that funny, that jaundiced, and perhaps even that important, particularly as an election-rigging, state-sponsored tyrant still runs Mother Russia, and fascist autocrats ascend to power in distressing numbers worldwide.
These despots need to be resisted and usurped, but they also need to be mercilessly mocked. And The Death of Stalin has been effective enough, so far, to be banned in Russia and three other former Soviet republics. See it here, while you still can.
THE DEATH OF STALIN. Director: Armando Iannucci; Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor, Adrian McLoughlin; Distributor: IFC Films; Rating: R; Opens: March 30 at Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton. Now playing the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach 18 and The Landmark in Merrick Park in Coral Gables