I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.
The Russians may have taken umbrage with British director Armando Iannucci‘s The Death of Stalin—a tale of backstabbing governmental hilarity—but their successful quest to ban it domestically is a case of “doth protest too much.” The Soviet Union allied with Hitler’s Nazi regime before joining the winning side and Stalin was very much an enemy of my enemy type of compromise. So while some may have glossed over his many atrocities because he once posed for a photograph with Roosevelt and Churchill, history doesn’t forget. And like the “disclaimer” to Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin‘s 2017 graphic novel source material explains, “[Our] imaginations were scarcely stretched […] since it would have been impossible […] to come up with anything half as insane as the real events.”
That’s not to say, however, that Iannucci, frequent collaborator Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, and David Schneider didn’t take liberties for the sake of comedy in their adaptation. If you’ve seen “The Thick of It” or its American sibling “Veep”, you know that effective satire exists in the embellishment of that which we all assume drives bureaucratic chaos: stupidity and ego. These two traits go hand-in-hand because they influence each other in ways that greatly augment their worst attributes. So when Stalin falls ill, the committee of his closest advisors must of course toe the line between rejoicing in the opportunity to fill such a massive void and feigning remorse in case he miraculously recovers with full memory of every critical thing said about him while unconscious.
This inner circle included the following (as depicted in the film if not real life): Stalin’s imbecilic deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), his de facto successor despite being weak enough to be swayed by powerful men more qualified for the job; secret police (NKVD) chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), a fearsomely conniving man with dirt on everyone as well as the desire to use it for political gain; and an advisor by the familiar name of Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the self-proclaimed “reformer” who was smart enough to know that easing off Stalin’s violently vicious tendencies was the best way to ultimately win the favor of the people. There’s also Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Nicolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi).
The latter quartet more or less consists of “pawns” on the chessboard to be won or lost depending on how the wind blows in their favor. The “kings” are therefore Beria and Khrushchev, each with one of the others by his side and a regiment of fighters at the ready with the NKVD and Field Marshal Zhukov’s (Jason Isaacs) national military respectively. Malenkov is barely on the board—a malleable stooge of a placeholder to push ideas through while they set their strategies in motion. They must try and win the “queen’s” favor (Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana), subdue the drunken destructiveness of her brother Vasily (Rupert Friend), and restructure the entirety of their country to prepare it for their pitches of a much brighter, safer future.
What could have been a rather by-the-books send-up of surface machismo setting each player towards their self-imposed falls, however, finds itself a rather complex web of deception instead. No joke is without a later payoff that mixes two or more things we’ve already laughed at together for another when you least expect it. Having Malenkov change his hairstyle is both a means to ensure every single character derisively comments on it and an indicator of his insecurities as the “top dog.” Olga Kurylenko‘s pianist Maria Yudina is more than just the woman who could be the death of harried radioman Andreyev (a scene-stealing Paddy Considine dripping with desperation) when she also proves a key piece to Stalin’s demise and the Beria/Khrushchev power struggle. Iannucci spares no expense.
It’s his ease at authentically putting these moving parts together despite the breakneck speed of dialogue, plotting, and humor that makes him such a force. Iannucci also exposes just how similar every government is despite format or politics since his template works so perfectly with Parliament, the White House, and now Communism. The way he places the spotlight on bit players only to dispose of them a second later (through career suicide before and in this case a bullet to the head) is effortless. Every character has a purpose and it will be served without loose ends to pull. If a housekeeper enters Stalin’s room to find him on the floor, you bet she’ll remain there until her presence delivers the laugh you don’t even realize she deserves.
And they all deserve one—especially that young son judged by a father who knows the boy gave him up to the police. But they also deserve the drama of their harrowing circumstances. No matter how many jokes earned chuckles, it’s Riseborough’s final scene of hopelessness that remains with me. It’s these casualties whether physical, psychological, or emotional that leave marks because every morsel of comedy arrives on the back of a ruined despot or dead patsy. We approach hysterics watching Peter Capaldi dress down anyone who crosses his path in “The Thick of It” because we’re aware the victim is still alive albeit scorched. The stakes are much higher here. A rant of epic profanity delivers its target relief because it could have easily been a bullet.
This reality demands great performances. These aren’t exaggerated cartoons standing in for real life buffoons. They’re real life buffoons. So it’s not enough to disregard their monstrous natures for a laugh. Something true must still exist behind every maneuver because these men are fighting for their lives. It’s no mistake one is sent home while everyone knows his name is on the next extermination list. It isn’t one when the man who signed that order expunges it because the would-be victim was suddenly more valuable alive then dead. This is cutthroat politics with a sharp knife at the ready. Where the mass killing of a thousand innocent civilians would generally be seen as a false move, it’s also an opportunity when those involved are without souls.
Success comes from ensuring we hate everyone onscreen. Anyone who took history in school knows which man ultimately seizes control of the USSR, so our interest is less in the conclusion than the journey. Without a good guy to rally behind (Buscemi is the closest since Tambor’s insecure Malenkov is prone to overcompensating rage-fueled pettiness), we watch to experience each body blow thrown. We revel in the circus, craving the blood drawn from every shallow wound of psyche and ego. Buscemi and Beale expertly deliver an endearing callousness that invests us in their schemes while still hoping neither will win. The rest provide brash advances or quiet submission depending on what the punch line needs, each a sterling example of comedy’s importance in enduring totalitarianism’s unrelentingly nightmarish truth.
 Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in Armando Iannucci’s THE DEATH OF STALIN. Photo by Nicola Dove. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
 Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan, Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, and Paul Chahidi as Bulganin. Photo by Nicola Dove. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.