Armando Iannucci has long satirized the manner in which political power is accorded to those who can mask cutthroat ambition behind an outward projection of bland inoffensiveness. He finds his most fertile ground yet for the subject in the power vacuum left in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian Mcloughlin) abrupt death from a brain hemorrhage. The Death of Stalin presents its real-life communist officials as detritus that clings to life after decades of Stalin’s brutal purges of potential rivals and suspected dissenters. This leaves only sycophants and incompetents to fill the void, men like the simpering Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), whose only political skill is the ability to pivot on a dime to agree with the last person to speak, fearlessly contradicting himself at all times. There are also those like Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who, having already lost a wife to Stalin’s mass arrests, toes the party line with reflexive spasms of paranoia.
The only two officials with any visible cunning are Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), whose withering sarcasm acts as a comic configuration of his ability to read others’ weaknesses, and the head of the N.K.V.D. secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who oozes a calm menace that can turn every statement, no matter how drily delivered, into a fear-inducing question. The two instantly set about warring with each other for supremacy, gathering any allies they can. Most entertainingly, they attempt to woo and contain Stalin’s spoiled, vacuous children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). In the film’s best scene, Khrushchev and Beria, busy plotting with their own co-conspirators, notice Svetlana arrive at Stalin’s compound and engage in a parody of a West Wing walk-and-talk scene: Khrushchev and Beria briskly walk toward Svetlana, waving their hands at her and attempting to outpace each other without doing anything so suspicious as running.
The battle of wills between Beria and Khrushchev propels The Death of Stalin’s most pointed satire. Each man’s grab for power depends on the support of others. As such, they’re forced to tolerate the oafish inanity of their comrades, whose farcical antics and cartoonish properties draw heavily from the actors’ past roles. Tambor plays Malenkov, who recalls the actor’s Hank Kingsley from The Larry Sanders Show, as a bumbling sidekick whose belief that he deserves the top job flies in the face of all reason. Malenkov even pulls a classic Hank Kingsley stunt like working on his image by dyeing his hair with a substance so black and viscous it resembles crude oil. Similarly, Palin nails Molotov’s skittish paranoia by digging into his own cultivated character type of the polite but neurotic milquetoast. When Beria tries to win Molotov’s support by freeing the minister’s imprisoned wife, the spymaster instead succeeds only in driving Molotov to displays of insensate loyalty, immediately denouncing his wife as a traitor just in case Beria is testing him.
Iannucci’s political satire has always operated via the farce of snowballing social faux pas, but the filmmaker has difficulty translating that to the Soviet system where those in power never even have to suffer the illusion of public accountability. The only time in the film that we get a sense of the civilian relation to the Kremlin is in the opening, borderline slapstick sequence, which features none of the key characters. In it, a Radio Moscow staffer (Paddy Considine) frantically restages a live Mozart broadcast when Stalin requests a recording of the un-taped performance, down to pulling people off the street to sit in the concert hall in order to match the broadcast’s acoustics. Such moments pry into the insane caprice at the heart of Stalinism, which only makes the times where the film attempts to soberly include unvarnished glimpses into the era’s darkest manifestations (executions, Beria’s serial rape) stand out as po-faced displays of taking the material too seriously.
Iannucci most notably managed to balance the absurdity of politics with its literal life-and-death stakes in 2009’s In the Loop. That film got incredible mileage out of the bumbling interactions between the Blair and Bush administrations and their shared bond of buffoonish incredulity, but it also dug deep into their mutual lockstep toward war, and the climactic sucker-punch of its brutal reminder that these elected fools launched an atrocity implicates us as much as the film’s subjects. The Death of Stalin, though hinged on the lethal consequences of losing a power move, ultimately concerns only those jockeying for control of the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, the film is reinvigorated toward the end when Khrushchev summons Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the commander of the Red Army, to be an ally in his looming power grab. Zhukov’s vulgar, domineering presence recalls that of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, and his mocking teases, such as threatening to report Khrushchev’s plotting to the police just to see the look of panic cross the normally reserved man’s face, belatedly yoke the film to the truly pointed comedy that characterizes Iannucci’s best work. Zhukov’s magnetic presence and fearless demeanor brings focus back to The Death of Stalin, resulting in a climax of grisly moves that secure Khrushchev’s position at the top of the Soviet Union, as well as an acidic coda in which the camera pans over a victorious Khrushchev to show the next generation of ladder-climbers watching him like snakes sneaking up on a field mouse.