Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a nasty little film. I am intentionally using the word “nasty” here and not throwing it around like our current president did when referring to former Secretary Clinton. The dictionary definition of nasty is: “highly unpleasant, especially to the senses; physically nauseating or behaving in an unpleasant or spiteful way.” Iannucci has created a film that boldly encapsulates the second definition. Iannucci is a contemporary master of political satire, having demonstrated this perfectly with HBO’s brilliant Veep starring Julie Louis Dreyfus as the horridly incompetent Vice President of the United States and a genuinely awful human being. Oh yes, and her entire staff are equally as awful, if not more so. His UK films, In the Loop and The Thick of It, also clearly demonstrate his satirical prowess.
With The Death of Stalin, Iannucci seems to have given up on humanity all together. Or, maybe he hasn’t given up entirely, because he seems to think that the dreadful and monstrous failures of world leaders can be fodder for great comedy. He tries to make the world laugh, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t succeed admirably.
The great Mark Twain once said, “Humor/comedy is tragedy plus time.” This film is most certainly full of tragedy – many characters die brutal deaths – but Iannucci finds a way to make these moments hysterically funny. For example: The monstrous Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, portrayed as an impish Brit with a mustache by Adrian McLoughlin, dies from a brain aneurism after having just read a threatening letter from a famous Russian pianist (Olga Kurylenko). As he begins to suffer a massive stroke, he starts to sputter and stammer. Every recognizable word out of his mouth is “fuck,” and somehow this made the entire theater erupt in giddy laughter. Iannucci knows how to make his audience feel like total crap for laughing at an onscreen death.
Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Krushchev in a role that defies reason. Despite some interesting prosthetic make-up, he is still very much the Buscemi we know and love. Just the fact that Iannucci casts a man with a strong, nasally Brooklyn accent in the role of a Soviet regime leader in 1953 Russia tells us all we need to know about this film: the whole damn thing is a joke, and the joke may be on us. If you are looking for any shred of historical accuracy, you may want to see another film.
Simon Russell Beale, a classically Shakespearean Brit, is cast as Lavrenti Beria, the character to hate. Every character in this black comedy is despicable, so picking one to hate more than the others is really saying something.
Jeffrey Tambor is the bumbling and incompetent Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s replacement. He wears a girdle because he has “a bad back.”
The great Michael Palin of Monty Python fame also blesses us with a comedic comeback performance as Vyacheslav Molotov.
The Death of Stalin shows us, closely, the events leading up to Stalin’s death and the chaos that ensues afterward, and makes a barking mockery of all of it. Everyone is awful. No one has any good to give.
I can say, without hesitation that this film may be the finest written and performed political satire since Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Both are blackly comic films that take very serious, and particularly unfunny matters, and blow them up into zany caricatures and hijinks that put the Three Stooges to shame. The one piece that starkly separates Stalin from Strangelove is the nastiness factor. Iannucci’s comedy has bite, and that bite draws blood.
The Death of Stalin may be a nasty and cringe-worthy film about real human monsters in history gone mad, but, with the very same shenanigans going on in our own government, one has to wonder if we don’t need this film right now.