A film review by Craig J. Koban July 3, 2018

RANK:  #12


2018, R, 108 mins.


Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev  /  Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria  /  Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov  /  Paddy Considine as Comrade Andryev  /  Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin  /  Jason Isaacs as General Georgy Zhukov  /  Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov  /  Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin  /  Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina  /  Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan  /  Paul Chahidi as Nicolai Bulganin  /  Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich  /  Adrian McLoughlin as Joseph Stalin

Directed by Armando Iannucci  /  Written by Fabien Nury, based on the graphic novel by Nury and Thierry Robin




Somewhat like Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE, Armando Iannucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN is a hilariously macabre work of political satire that seems both broadly divorced from reality while simultaneously holding up a mirror up to it.  

This grim historical farce - based on a French graphic novel - is hysterical, yes, but it's also a work of unnerving bleakness that pains to show the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin for what he was - a brutal and cruel dictator - while underlining the borderline comic madness that surrounded his regime.  It should be noted that THE DEATH OF STALIN isn't trying to shed humorous light on the limitless cruelty of Stalin and the societal horrors he inflicted on his citizens.  Rather, Iannucci's film inspires us to laugh at the limitless buffoonery of those under Stalin that helped him on his despotic reign, and the absurd level of selfishness that encapsulated these men.  Like masterful works of satire, THE DEATH OF STALIN pulls very few punches and goes right for the jugular, and the manner that it reminds us of the small mindedness of contemporary politicians makes it equal parts funny and scary. 



But, make no mistake about it, THE DEATH OF STALIN had me laughing harder than just about any other recent silver screen comedy, and that's a true testament to Iannucci's bravura handling of the sheer depravity of the material.  The director is no stranger to politically charged work, having created TV's VEEP, but here he's working within the tricky creative wheelhouse of making a comedy out of the demise of one of the most reviled dictators of the 20th Century while still tickling our collective funny bones in the process.  There's an inherent confidence of spirit and untamed ferocity to his approach, and even when THE DEATH OF STALIN veers towards overt slapstick Iannucci reinforces that Stalin's legacy and ultimate death had far ranging impacts on Russia and the world.  The film also implicitly places an awful lot of trust in audiences to handle such complex handling of this polarizing material.  THE DEATH OF STALIN proves - as Mel Brooks did with the Nazis in THE PRODUCERS - that any subject matter is ripe for humor if handled with just the right level of care and precision. 

The film opens in wonderful fashion...and disaster.  It's 1950's Moscow and the city's main radio program features celebrated pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) helping the orchestra with a splendid rendition of a Mozart program.  Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is so taken in with the stirring performance that he calls into the show's producer to ask for a recording of it to be sent his way.  There's one rather large problem: The team neglected to record it, which means that - after the initial panic wears off - everyone is forced to come back to stage a concert, record it, and then send it back to Stalin without him being none the wiser.  Maria, who lost a family member directly because of Stalin's cruel methods, refuses to cooperate until she's bribed to do so.  Everything is re-staged, a recording is prepped, and the crew appears to be in the clear. 

But then Stalin drops to the ground in his office after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, which is revealed to be caused by a poisoned note penned by Maria herself that made it to the leader.  

And then...the real shit storm begins. 

Predictably, all those in Stalin's political and personal inner circle begin running around like chickens with the heads cut off, desperately trying to decide (a) what the hell should they do with the lifeless body and (b) who the hell should replace their dear leader.  The behind closed doors power struggle involves future Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Stalin's protégée, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the longer the comatose-approaching-death Stalin remains incapacitated in a pool of his own blood and urine the more these men endlessly and needlessly bicker as to the correct course of action.  Things get really dicey between Khrushchev and Beria, and both men try to out power play the other over matters both consequential and amusingly insignificant.  As Stalin becomes very much dead and his corpse begins to increasingly ripen it soon becomes clear that the future of Russia is being held in the grasps of some truly inept and deeply selfish people whose competence level would be adequately described as clown-like. 

The assembled cast here is in absolutely fine form, and one of the preposterous pleasures to be had in THE DEATH OF STALIN is that this weird hodgepodge of American and British actors make no effort whatsoever to speak in what would have been thick and distracting Russian accents for their respective parts.  Steve Buscemi is, uh huh, not everyone's ideal choice for playing Khrushchev, but he's essentially allowed to portray him with all of his terrific and incomparably idiosyncratic Buscemi-isms intact.  Once you quickly accept the fact that these performers are in no way shape or form physical dead ringers for their historical characters and do very little to sound like them, you just become willing to go along for the ride of this twistedly bizarre film.  I really appreciated Tambor's deeply committed performance as his buffoon like second in command to Stalin, as well as Jason Isaac, who appears later in the film as the irreproachably narcisstic and pompous leader of the Russian military.  My two favorite turns are from Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend, the former playing Stalin's increasingly edgy daughter and the latter who perhaps steals the comic thunder from everyone as the childishly insensitive son of the dictator who takes great relish in throwing multiple tantrums.  All in all, this impeccably coordinated and finely attuned cast all work marvelously in concert together to make this whole film succeed despite the madness that surrounds their characters. 

The real star, though, is easily Iannucci, who emerges here as a consummate taskmaster that thanklessly crafts a staggeringly bleak portrait of a society in moral panic that never once hides Stalin's oppressive cruelness away from the spotlight, and he certainly doesn't tone down the barbarism here for the purposes of sanitizing the material.  That ultimately gives THE DEATH OF STALIN some sobering bite and a sense of overall purpose.  Iannucci also uses this underlining subject matter to reflect on the mindlessness of modern politics.  The timely parallels that this film draws to our current state of world affairs will hardly be lost on any viewer, especially those that only have a vague notion of what Stalin's tenure in power was like.  There's something to be said about the universality of satiric themes involving the crazy tendencies of governments that are run by imbecilic lunatics, but that doesn't make THE DEATH OF STALIN feel banal and lacking in creative hubris.  There's a surrealist wit and sophistication to Iannucci's touch here, which helps elevate the film far above other similarly themed satires. 

THE DEATH OF STALIN is as amusing as it is horrifying.  That's a very hard dichotomy to pull off.  As an engine to keep audiences uncomfortably off balance and rattled, Iannucci's film is savagely enthralling.  Even though there are some beyond obvious dramatic license used for proper effect (anyone going into this film for a history lesson should check their expectations at the door), any factual discrepancies can be justified here for the type of film it's trying to be.  Having said that, THE DEATH OF STALIN accurately captures the shocking casualness of the violence perpetrated by Stalinism that turned a blind eye to due process, but it also shows the aggressively self-centered nature of politicians that were all, in one form or another, using Stalin's death to serve as a personal gain for them.  This is a sublimely engineered piece of comically exaggerated history, to be sure, but it nevertheless has its fingers squarely on the pulse of the historical horrors of Stalin's time in power, and the way the film allows for us to grimly ponder on our own time and leaders makes it all the more chillingly topical.   

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