THE DEATH OF STALIN Review: The Joys Of Authoritarian Paranoia
Timely doesn't even begin to describe the release of The Death of Stalin. A comic takedown of Russian bureaucratic backstabbing is not only cathartic in an era when the Russian government is a threat looming larger every day, but is especially so as the American government seems to be mirroring the attitudes that dominated the Soviet Union in the events here depicted. There isn't anything so crass as direct or explicitly drawn parallels between modern politics and the events following Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, but if there was ever going to be a time when a high-brow absurdist political comedy was going to find wide appeal, it's now. And Veep creator Armando Iannucci directs this bumbling display with consistently biting wit that doesn't venture too far into farce to be taken credibly.
Based on Fabien Nury's and Thierry Robin's graphic novel of the same name—which is an excellent read and has been nearly perfectly adapted here—The Death of Stalin opens on a live Moscow broadcast of a Mozart recital, during which Stalin himself calls requesting a recording of the performance. Alas, the station must frantically stage the performance to be played again so that it may be recorded, going so far as to replace audience members with random people from the street and pulling in a replacement conductor from his home for fear of the repercussions from disappointing Stalin. This sequence doesn't play a large role in the ensuing political maneuvering, but it demonstrates the perverse doublespeak that permeates Soviet life, wherein Stalin is paid perpetual lip service for his greatness and his role as the liberating leader of his people, yet people are more in fear of or hostile toward his power to have them killed or imprisoned on a whim than they are in awe of his leadership.
It's shortly after that the titular event occurs, and the majority of the film finds the members of the government's Central Committee scrambling to fill the power vacuum while trying to maintain the appearance of continuity of purpose as they each attempt to manipulate their agendas to the forefront of the administration's goals. Carried by the neurotic performances of some character actor favorites (Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale, and, amazingly enough, Michael Palin are inspired bits of casting), we watch these players perform shallow grief for their fallen leader, barely disguise fear of one another, and manipulate each other in bids for their own power, either through direct influence or through positioning a figurehead. There's a bumbling paranoia in the proceedings that would feel satirical were this not based on actual events, as Stalin's tyrannically deific spectre looms over the attempts his presumed successors, who only were ever instruments of the dictator's whims.
This all culminates in a richly layered comedy of errors, with players constantly seeking to divert blame on one another while operating under a fiction that the Soviet state is incapable of any error whatsoever. The pure density of actors at play can be overwhelming at times, but the highlights include Buscemi's trademark weaseling, Jeffrey Tambor's attempts to project a competence his character clearly lacks, and Rupert Friend making a drunken, gun-toting spectacle of himself as Stalin's nepotism-enabled son. Carrying through the conclusion of Stalin's funeral and the events that enabled Nikita Khrushchev to rise to power, The Death of Stalin is less about receiving a history lesson than it is about watching these bizarre personalities bounce off one another in evidence that authoritarian governance is more about personal enrichment than about following through on the thin promises made to the governed. Even if that didn't feel especially relevant right now, it makes for a hell of a spectacle anyway.