Satire ain’t dead, comrade
Political satire in film is one of those art forms that’s really hard to do well. I think the last good entry in this subgenre might have been Four Lions, ridiculing the concept of jihadist suicide bombers…and if you think that’s dark then you NEED to check that film out to see how far they go with the concept. But dark humor is a hallmark of these kinds of films, and so we have it with The Death of Stalin, a British-produced film from Scottish director Armando Iannucci based on a French graphic novel about the Soviet power struggles in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death starring mostly Americans in regular English accents that was banned in Russia. Talk about an international collaboration of not giving a damn.
Anywho, our film begins with Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) ordering his latest hit list of political enemies among his close committee of advisers before he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. This leads to a battle of wits between the head of the NKVD, Lavrently Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and the head of the Moscow Party, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), as both conspire against the other to consolidate power and earn more support among the Central Committee, particularly from the meek Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), the fierce believer in Stalinism, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Red Army war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). What follows is an ever expanding body count as both Khrushchev and Beria blackmail, scheme, backstab, and lie their way through Stalin’s wake and funeral in order to determine the future of the Soviet Union.
The best political satires take a ridiculous concept and stretch it to its logical conclusion to point out just how absurd some politics truly are. While films like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Wag the Dog, succeeded in being incredibly ominous about mutual assured destruction and spinmasters in the media; The Death of Stalin is far more concerned with lampooning an old historical event in order to warn about cronyism and opportunistic nepotists. Which probably wouldn’t have felt relevant three years ago for most Western nations, but with the conga line of scummy departures from the Trump Administration, rise of nationalistic parties in France and Italy, and increasingly horrific suppression of dissent in the former Soviet nations has made the film slightly more topical.
But merely being released during a pertinent time isn’t nearly enough for a film to become remotely watchable; after all, my previous examples of Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog are still great watches today because they are genuinely funny, insightful, and have very solid stories of bonkers situations. Thankfully, this movie boasts a ludicrous plot that’s mercifully easy to follow since the whole ordeal is being driven by the actions of five individuals each portrayed by strong and distinct character actors who make their wildly different personalities known clearly. On top of that, the film quickly gets you to understand each person’s significance within the Soviet regime, which will likely be foreign to many people who are not familiar with their political history…basically 95% of regular film audiences including myself. This might seem like a small detail to bring up, but trust me when I say that this is what allows the film to be an easy recommendation for general audiences as opposed to the much narrow subset of lovers of political dramas no matter how great the film may be. Even better is that every thespian from the leads on down to supporting bits are all firing off on all cylinders.
In particular, I want to draw attention to both Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale (Ferdinand Lyle from Penny Dreadful), who command the screen every time they’re on despite the fact that they’re such wormy conspirators. Neither portrays their character with any degree of likability as they’re both highly self-serving bastards, but they are nonetheless interesting to follow on their journey as you laugh and get shocked by the sociopathic ways each takes to undermine the other’s credibility within Stalin’s inner circle. But they remain compelling characters to follow as they are a complicated bag of emotions, goals, hopes, and fears, everything tiresome human beings typically are; which allows you to understand their motivations as they cross more and more lines in order to sabotage the other’s political ambitions.
As for the rest of the cast, they all came in for quick and explosive scenes that left a veritable impression on me, especially from Jason Isaacs. This guy was having a blast every time he came on screen as he strutted onto the set with a ridiculous amount of bravado that instantly clashed with the conniving members of the Central Committee. While he’s not in the film all that much, he’s in it just for the right amount of time to leave everyone laughing and remembering him by film’s end. Same goes for Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son, Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the famous and defiant Russian pianist, Maria Yudina. Honestly, the only let down of the cast was Jeffery Tambor who seemed to be playing who his shtick as a morose old man constantly seeking validation from others. Yeah I know Buscemi has played as similar characters before, but those kinds of archetypes are fun to watch, whereas Tambor’s just feels slightly annoying. Matter of taste I suppose.
All of this is tightly composed by writer/director Armando Iannucci, who has made a business out of political satire with his previous productions, most notably with the HBO show of Veep and the Academy-award nominated In the Loop. As I opened this review, satire is a very difficult art form to nail down since you have the make a product that has something smart to say without coming across like an obnoxious troll, and Iannucci has mastered the techniques of tasteful pitch black comedy and insightful commentary. Further, he’s great at working with a plethora of actors and composing memorable shots to round out my checklist for solid technical accomplishments.
My complaints are relatively minor against a very solid core, but I do have to draw attention in order to explain why it’s not getting a super high rating. The pacing gets a little sluggish in the second act as the various characters prepare for Stalin’s wake, which made things slightly harder to follow. Thankfully, the most important bits of information come in the very beginning, so you’re not lost when the funeral gets underway and the plot resumes its hooks into your attention. Further, some of the jokes don’t land because the set up for the punchlines feel rushed in a few instances. Finally, some might be turned off by the fact all of your actors are speaking with British or American accents and only ever bringing in a hint of Russian to pronounce certain cities and people’s names. It didn’t bother me so much on account that the film was an obvious comedy, so the accents just contributed to absurdity of the situation, and the fact I was thankful I didn’t have to hear some bad Russian accents like some so-called serious dramas (boy was it convenient I saw Red Sparrow not less than a week ago).
While I can’t ignore these criticisms, I was still hooked on the film, and will even check this out again if I have the chance. Going to give this a low but nice…
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