Movie Review – The Death of Stalin

by Paul Preston
The Movie Guys

Armando Iannucci is in the business of satire like no one else right now. There’s the type of satire the Zucker Brothers started with Jim Abrahams back in the ‘70s and ‘80s with films like Airplane and Top Secret!, which focused on upending every norm of cinema known to the genre they were taking on, including breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the fact that they were a movie themselves. This is a more difficult than it looks style to nail just right, as evidenced by all the copycat filmmakers who have followed in their wake chronologically…but not artistically. Then there’s the more reality-based satire along the lines of Network that takes an everyday situation and infuses it with a heightened reality and enough outrageousness to call out the real situation’s flaws and shortcomings.

The Death of Stalin

With The Death of Stalin, Iannucci is doing something more unique, and it’s a tougher but highly rewarding train of thought to get aboard. This style of satire doesn’t involve outrageousness or genre mocking, but instead instills just enough ridiculousness into the incredibly sober situations to where all the piss is taken out of the characters. And in this case, the characters are to-the-gills with piss: Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. Did I describe this well? It’s tough to define the balancing act Iannucci’s found here between reality and spoof, but to watch it is to know you’re watching something original.

The film opens with a classical music concert in Moscow that seems to go off without a hitch until Stalin requests a recording of the show. The frazzled engineer realizes the show was not recorded and he scrambles to keep the orchestra and the patrons around to redo the entire show solely to record it for, and appease, Stalin. Good-in-any-genre actor Paddy Considine plays the engineer and he hits the tone right on the head. This is not a funny situation, as Stalin would just as soon kill the engineer if he didn’t get what he wanted, or kill the orchestra if the show was awful, or kill anyone who delivered a bad recording to him. Iannucci embues the scene with just enough oddball lines and circumstances to make it funny and Considine’s earnestness and desperation is the deal-sealer. It’s a great set-up for the film, which has numerous scenes of inhumanity and danger, infused with the preposterous, deflating the importance of (and taking a sledgehammer to) the egos of these eminent Russian politicians and killers.

The Death of Stalin

It’s not going to be an easy ride for some. Characters’ lives aren’t worth spit (such was 1950s Russia), there’s shocking violence (such was 1950s Russia) and there’s also an adherence to historical Russian political heirarchies that many viewers probably don’t know enough about. It’s a unique direction for a satirist to throw punches (Iannucci gained fame poking at the much more relatable U.S. political system in the HBO series Veep). There is never a doubt, though, that the man at the helm isn’t in total control of his material and his film.

Another slap in the face of these Russian giants is to undercut their whole importance by having American and British actors play them and never give a damn about dialects. Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev is Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov sounds like Jeffrey Tambor. These are two very well-known actors with unique vocal traits, but screw it! By the time Jason Isaacs comes blazing into the scenario with medals pumping off his chest and a thick Yorkshire accent, it’s clear the memories of these Russian shit-heels won’t (and shouldn’t) be respected.

The Death of Stalin

The cast is totally game. Buscemi delivers lines just as you want him to, with all the gusto and filth of his best Fargo or Reservoir Dogs days. Tambor is a wet noodle of a leader trying to be butch. Simon Russell Beale pulls off the spectacular stunt of playing Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s notorious head of secret police, as utterly terrifying, but any filmgoer with his head on straight can find the laughs in how the film treats the meaninglessness of the lives of the Russian people in the eyes of Beria and the Stalin regime. Man, that doesn’t sound funny, but…in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way, this all works, trust me.

And best of all, The Death of Stalin features a triumphant sighting of legendary comedian Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, another one of the post-Stalin higher-ups who finds himself on Stalin’s hit list early in the film. He has a monologue that is an instant classic that leaves his fellow Russian officials struggling to respond in a way that they think would come off best.

The Death of Stalin

These dignitaries scramble and jockey for position in the wake of Stalin’s passing and it’s horrifying fun to watch them be so scared and childish and posturing (characteristics that certainly describe the current White House). Watching Putin prance around on a horse with his shirt off reminds you things haven’t changed in terms of Russian oligarchs boosting their self-importance. Iannucci attacking that aspect of them first and foremost is a big win.
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Rated: R
Country: USA/UK/Canada/France/Belgium
Distributor: IFC Films

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