A Deadly Game of Office Politics - A Review of “Death of Stalin”
Armando Iannucci is a bit of a savant in portraying politics as farce. Ianucci’s TV shows In the Thick and Veep show British and American politics respectively as a bastian of petty desires, vindictiveness and gracelessness. Monumental moments of political genius are often shown to actually be the inept decisions of a group of bumbling fools and self-obsessed egoists.
In his movie Death of Stalin, Iannucci moves back in history to 1953 and presents the period directly preceeding and after the fatal stroke that killed Soviet Party leader and genocidal maniac Josef Stalin. Where In the Thick and Veep may feel real, they are decidedly within the realm of fiction. The same can not be said for 1950’s Soviet Russia, where Stalin’s relentless purges paralyzed a terrified populace created a power vacuum among his conniving underlings which led to several weeks of positioning, mandates, rebuttals, alliances and betrayals. Within days, Stalin’s Committee members are constantly manuevering to lead a convoy of cars, be first to offer condolences to Stalin’s children Svetlana and Vasily, or to award themselves honors.
We know from the outset that Nikita Khrushchev will be the eventual winner in the deadly game of one-upsmanship, but initially, it’s hard to see how. Director of the Interior (and head of Stalin’s secret kill squad) Laverenti Beria makes quick moves to take control of the Great Leader’s incapacity, including installing puppet Georgy Malenkov as Interim Head of the Committee. Beria (literally) knows where all the bodies are buried and uses that knowledge to stay one step ahead of his rivals. What follows would be funny if it wasn’t so awful: Secret killings, hidden political prisoners, death sentences revoked and then re-instated.
Iannucci’s scenes only work with excellent actors. With no laugh track and limited setup, characters constantly interrupt and talk over each other as the camera moves wildly trying to keep up with whatever is happening at that moment. Jeffrey Tambor is great as the inept and clueless Malenkov who tries to emulate Stalin’s forthright nature, but is mostly just trying to get along. Jason Issac is great fun as the macho Field Marshall Zhukov in one of the few roles that doesn’t have him hissing as the resident bad guy, and Michael Palin is hilarious as Vyacheslav Molotov who is insistent in remaining loyal to Stalin even when it meant that he ended up on one of Stalin’s kill lists.
However, the film truly belongs to Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev as the political adversaries that constantly circle each other, trying to undermine each others. Beale is a master of each scene and conveys Beria’s racing mind, working for the next advantage. Alternately, Buscemi’s Khrushchev starts the film almost as comic relief, telling silly stories to Stalin that he later insists that his wife write down so that he doesn’t repeat the wrong story to the Great Leader. As the film continues, we watch Khrushchev move from (mostly) goodhearted committee member to someone who realizes that in the end the best leader often is the one who can actually make it to the top.