The writer-director Armando Iannucci, one of the few great comic minds embraced by both British and American television networks, has spent his career lambasting petty political intrigues and bureaucratic tomfoolery. The Thick of It, his classic BBC political sitcom, satirically skewered the machinations of New Labour and Tony Blair’s loyal disciples. In reviewing Veep, Iannucci’s HBO sitcom, Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s TV critic, observed: “In Iannucci’s black-comedy universe, bad faith is permanent.”
Selina Meyer, the beleaguered American vice president of the series’ title, personifies electoral politics’ chronic cynicism. Her need to pander to the public was once countered by a dauntingly honest confession: “I’ve met some people, some real people, and I gotta tell you, a lot of them are fucking idiots.” Conceived in a similar spirit, Iannucci’s first feature film, In the Loop (2009), was a barbed indictment of the collusion between politicians and the military that led to the fiasco of the war in Iraq.
Freely adapted from a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and the artist Thiery Robin, The Death of Stalin, Iannnucci’s new film (which premiered on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival) seems to shift gears by forsaking contemporary concerns by plunging head first into a meditation on one of the 20th century’s great historical shifts: the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee and one of that century’s most notorious dictators. Yet, despite the grim material, The Death of Stalin is as full of pithy one-liners and cringe-inducing power struggles laced with black humor, as his previous TV and film work.
Appropriately enough, Stalin himself only has a fleeting presence in a movie devoted to his demise. The Death of Stalin is not about the dictator himself, who, by all accounts, did not possess much of an inner life; the movie is instead bound up with the struggle for political supremacy that followed his fatal stroke. Iannucci has assembled an expert group of American and British character actors to depict key members of the Soviet politburo united by their desire to replace their fallen leader, as well as a pervasive paranoia that new purges will seal their fates as firmly as those of the previous victims of Stalin’s murderous assault on “enemies of the people.”
The great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale plays Lavrentiy Beria, the obese and odious head of the NKVD, the Soviet security apparatus. Beria had the clout to exile or kill Stalin’s enemies. But by the time of his boss’s death, he himself wonders if the internal strife in the politburo will lead to his own obliteration. (He was in fact executed on Dec. 23, 1953.) While Beale’s Beria is saturnine, Steve Buscemi is supremely irascible as Nikita Khrushchev, the future General Secretary. Khrushchev’s famous impetuousness allows Iannucci to indulge in his trademark propensity for dialogue peppered with profanity-laden tirades. When Vasily, Stalin’s alcoholic son, an unstable wastrel who was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for “anti-Soviet propaganda,” announces that he’d like to make a speech at his father’s funeral, Khrushchev, who appears to have acquired a Brooklyn accent in Buscemi’s rendition, replies: “Sure, and I’d like to fuck Grace Kelly.”
Jeffrey Tambor, however, delivers the film’s most subtle performance as Georgy Malenkov, the arch Stalinist who briefly served as head of the Communist Party before Khrushchev eventually wrested control of the reins of power from him. At first, Tambor’s Malenkov seems supremely cautious and self-effacing. But when he assumes the mantle of the “Red Tsar,” his vanity comes to the fore; a seeming milquetoast is transformed into a doomed dandy.
One of the most refreshing aspects of The Death of Stalin’s casting involves Iannucci’s decision to reject the usual proprieties of historical films that ordain that actors should either emulate the accents of the protagonists they’re impersonating or at least share some bland, homogenous speech pattern. Giving the finger to the unreal “realism” of Hollywood historical pageants, the actors speak in a farrago of inflections that affirm the surreal tenor of life in the former Soviet Union.
The infamous “Doctors’ plot,” a trumped-up conspiracy to undermine Stalin’s authority that was supposedly masterminded by Jewish doctors, provides a wealth of opportunities for macabre humor. Since many of the most competent doctors in Stalin’s circles have been arrested, the nervous politburo members surmise that they have to settle for a group of dubious “bad doctors” to cure the ailing dictator. When a ragtag group of apparently incompetent doctors appear near Stalin’s deathbed, his daughter Svetlana remarks that they “look like mental patients.” Inside the Kremlin, the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Despite The Death of Stalin’s value as entertainment, it’s valid to wonder what the point of lampooning long-dead Stalinists might actually be. Wouldn’t it perhaps have been more pertinent for Iannucci to have aimed his satirical fire at the gang of misfits currently holding power in the Trump administration? Yet, even if it’s possible to conclude that the movie is something of a thought experiment, an attempt to prove that even the most horrifying politicians can inspire rollicking satirical invective, there’s no denying that there’s little quaint about Iannucci’s project. In contemporary dictatorships such as the dismal regimes of Duterte in the Philippines or Erdogan in Turkey, the same sort of internecine quarrels that fueled political upheavals in the former Soviet Union are insidiously brewing.