[This is a repost of my review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The Death of Stalin opens today in limited release.]
Perhaps the most horrifying thing in Armando Iannucci’s new comedy The Death of Stalin is how little he has to work to differentiate it from his previous works, which looked at the dysfunctional governments of the U.K. (The Thick of It) and the U.S. (Veep), from the authoritarian regime of Joseph Stalin. For Iannucci, we’re all craven and incompetent, and while the settings and situation might change, the actors involved will continue to bungle their way through. Thankfully, the dark comedy provides enough distance that we can laugh at the madness rather than being consumed by it. While not as sharp as some of Iannucci’s other work, The Death of Stalin will have you laughing at a coterie of buffoons even as they wreak death and destruction in their bid for power.
In 1953, after years of brutal and tyrannical rule, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has died from a stroke, and while there are laws in place for what should happen following his demise, his top aides are now jockeying for position. While his meek, indecisive deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is nominally in charge, the real power struggle is between party secretary Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and secretary chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Thrown into the absurdity of an authoritarian state wresting loose from the grasp of Stalinism, the cabinet tries to figure out a way forward with various factions jockeying for position and not a shred of competence or integrity to be found.
The Death of Stalin will look painfully familiar to anyone who has seen Iannucci’s past work. Any of the characters would be right at home in the office of Selina Meyer or Malcolm Tucker (it also helps that rather than force Russian accents onto his largely British and American cast, he just lets them use their own voices). Almost everyone is callow, narcissistic, and completely uninterested in actually serving anyone else. While political scientists might try to split hairs on systems of governance, for Iannucci, people are the problem, and while the outcomes can be more severe, incompetence is the constant.
This leads to a film that’s frequently biting and acerbic, although Iannucci usually resists showing the full gory detail of the violence involved, leaving torture and executions mostly off-screen to make horrors a matter-of-fact rather than atrocities that demand attention. This callousness serves the movie well because it’s how the main characters view the world. Although both Khrushchev and Beria want to be reformers and halt some of Stalin’s most egregious abuses, they don’t bat an eye at the thought of killing anyone who needs to be killed. Human life isn’t considered precious; only the pursuit of power matters.
Perhaps the darkness of this sentiment would be wholly depressing if Iannucci didn’t wrap it in complete absurdity. From moving Stalin’s body to organizing the funeral to pretty much every single interaction these characters have, everyone is a total nincompoop. We like to believe that the people in power are wise (or at least we did until Trump got elected, at which point that notion was shattered for all time), but as former White House employees have pointed out, the reality is closer to Veep than House of Cards. Why should an authoritarianism regime be any different? Is an apparatus that kills millions of its own citizens somehow more rational or intelligent?
Although the laughs don’t come as frequently as In the Loop or Veep, The Death of Stalin is still consistently funny and delightfully mean-spirited. If Iannucci only made movies about idiotic pols for the rest of his days, I would be completely fine with that, especially when he’s got a terrific cast like this one at this disposal. The Death of Stalin doesn’t speak well of the past or the present, but it’s not supposed to. It’s the same message he’s been hammering us with for years: the inmates are running the asylum, and the only reason they haven’t burnt the place down is because then they’d have no place else to go.