Directed by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko. 107 minutes. ★★★★
The 1953 stroke that ended the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin left the country without a leader. There was an obvious (if not official) successor in Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov, but Moscow was full of ambitious men plotting to bring stability while carving out the largest slice of power for themselves. Chief among them were Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentiy Beria and Moscow party leader Nikita Khruschev. Vyacheslav Molotov, a former diplomat on the outs with Stalin, saw a chance to claw his way back to relevance. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily proved to be paranoid and erratic, and others struggled to control him. Loyalties turned on a kopek coin, and yesterday’s patriot could be tomorrow’s traitor. One false move—a mistake as simple or random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and you could be denounced as an enemy of the Revolution and shot. Even history could be rewritten, if you could convincingly deny that past events never happened.
Pretty funny, huh? Science fiction author Aaron Allston once said that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that tragedy is something awful happening to someone else, while comedy is something awful happening to someone else. Armando Iannucci, the Scottish satirist responsible for The Thick of It and Veep, puts this principle to work in his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin. Iannucci interprets these historical figures as comical characters and makes farce of the lengths they’ll go to avoid being killed.
To wit: on the last day of his life, Stalin “requests” a recording of a Mozart recital broadcast on Radio Moscow. The problem: Radio Moscow didn’t actually record it. So the producer goes great lengths to stage a second performance—pressing a new conductor into service, bribing the pianist, and filling empty seats in the concert hall with citizens literally grabbed off the street. The result: a recording of what the producer assures Stalin’s men is the performance as broadcast.
Iannucci doubles down on the absurdity by casting identifiable actors (often comedians) in the roles who don’t transform into famous men of history. Indeed, three of the leading actors play their characters as variations of what they’ve been doing their entire careers. Steve Buscemi’s Khruschev is brittle, high-strung, and Brooklyn-accented. Michael Palin’s Molotov is a neurotic buffoon not far removed from the dozens of similar characters he played as a member of a certain Flying Circus. And nothing would have surprised me less than if Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov started spouting random George Bluth Sr. quotes.
Despite these and other remarkable performances—Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Jason Isaacs as the cocky Field Marshal Zukhov, and strongest of all, Simon Russell Beale as the crafty, canny, and psychotic Beria—the main draw isn’t any one actor or actress but Iannucci himself, choreographing historical events as if they were scenes in Clue and writing deft, sharp zingers for his cast to lob off each other. While none of the characters prove as quotable as Iannucci’s most endearing creations, Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker, we do at least get Buscemi responding “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly” to Vasily’s request to deliver a eulogy at his father’s funeral, and Tambor inviting his rivals to kiss his Russian ass, and those are moments worth having.
Now, is it funny? I laughed quite a bit, but all comedy is in the eye of the beholder, and this specific kind of comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I do assert that one of art’s most important roles in culture is to help us make sense of the senseless, and The Death of Stalin uses comedy to transform the end of an unthinkably large tragedy (this will be the last time that losers in Soviet power struggles will pay with their lives) into something that can be held in the mind and understood—and if we understand it, perhaps we can prevent it from happening again.