Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

What happens when you bring together a group of men with no morals, no empathy, no sense of justice, fairness, dignity, or common good [i.e. sociopaths] and tell them that one has a shot at being the next leader of a world superpower?

And what if those men had the maturity and attention span of toddlers, barely competent enough to tie their own shoelaces?

A tragedy played as a farce, uproariously funny, if you can look past the bodies piling up outside the door.

The Death of Stalin, the latest political satire from writer-director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep), tells the story of a handful of Soviet party leaders scrambling to succeed Josef Stalin as the leader of the USSR in the weeks following the dictator’s death in Moscow in 1953.

Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the rest of the goons who make up the leadership committee of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party are all thrown into a state of great inner turmoil and excitement when the unthinkable happens: their omnipotent leaders kicks the bucket.

Each sees an opportunity to become the next party leader, and a long history of kowtowing to every whim of the recently deceased dictator let's each know that being party leader comes with pretty absolute fealty and authority, however underserved and arbitrarily wielded.

Let the fumbling, maneuvering, and conniving begin!

 Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

The great accomplishment of Iannucci’s screenplay and of his tremendous ensemble of comedic actors is that The Death of Stalin establishes from the start how these men are completely inept and uninterested in every aspect of life and leadership, except for one thing: winning. Their political intelligence extends not much further than “obey the leader, no matter what he says,” but not because they believe in what he's saying. Rather, it's because they recognize that the man on top has won the right to say and do whatever he likes, and attention must be paid, to respect that victory… and to lay the groundwork for your own assured rise to power.

Law, history, judgment, and ideals be damned: what's important is loyalty, to your own interests first and to your boss’s demands. Hopefully those two coincide, or else you may be in trouble.

The problem, of course, with such absolute self-interest mixed with confusion and deceit is that everyone is loyal, but no one can be trusted.

A master of politically insightful and vulgar slapstick, Iannucci packs the movie with gag after gag that reveals just how little these people think of one another, and how much they think of themselves.

Kneeling over Stalin's prostrate body, each leader weeps and weeps, until they realize that the great dead leader is lying in a puddle of his own piss, in which case it's time to find a better spot to mourn.

They frantically court Stalin's spoiled adult children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), but struggle to sound convincing as they praise an alcoholic nincompoop (who may have been responsible for the death of the entire national hockey team) and reassure a stubborn worrywart with an exacting eye for interior design.

But The Death of Stalin is not just a movie about fumbling morons who can't keep their stories straight. It's about fumbling morons who can't keep their stories straight who are also willing to kill untold thousands of people, family and friends included, if that slaughter may help their chances to win the game.

Peale plays Beria as the most openly sadistic of the bunch, carefully compiling execution lists of "dissidents" (i.e. random people deemed threatening to the regime because of their sanity or professional competence), while also delighting in his own participation in mass rape, torture, and abuse. But they are all implicated, even Khrushchev, the most quirkily avuncular of the bunch who is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of civilians to make his rival look bad. And, of course, he is the one to win in the end, however ephemeral that victory may be.

Watching a coterie of self-obsessed sycophants lavishly praise the authoritarian leader of the moment while simultaneously plotting their own rise to power, one can't help but think of the Donald Trump administration.

But the politicians and generals at the center of The Death of Stalin are not the colorful, offensive, non-sensical Scaramuccis of the world.

They are the back room manipulators: too public facing and approval seeking to be a secretive cabal, too dishonest and authoritarian to be coherent or publicly accountable. They are the comic fools whose ineptitude, ego, and destructiveness are all of a piece. Fortunately for the political elite in STALIN, they don't have to worry about getting voted out of office. They just have to worry, constantly, about being toppled by their own colleagues, friends, and confidants