If there’s one thing I love about the HBO show Veep, it’s the fact that every episode can succeed in stressing me out. Created by Armando Iannucci, the show perfectly captures the energetic and high-stress environment of D.C. politics while deftly blending it with witty screwball comedy; turning the real into the absurd and vice versa. With such a carefully-handled finger on the pulse of political comedy, it stands to reason that Iannucci would gather his fellow Veep writers and producers to tackle the well-known political history of a country that has frequently found itself in the modern day news-cycle: Russia. As the title reveals though, The Death Of Stalin is not a film about dear old Vlad but about comrade Stalin and, more importantly, his inner political circle who scramble to vie for power and influence after the brutal leader unexpectedly dies. While the film is not as tightly written as Veep, The Death Of Stalin provides exactly the kind of humor you would expect from Iannucci and company while not shying from the realities of Stalinist rule.
In a film full of political chess, The Death Of Stalin focuses on two main players from Stalin’s inner circle: head of secret police Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Moscow Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). While both are as equally bumbling as the rest of the party members, Beria is more cold and calculating while Khrushchev struggles to amass allies that aren’t too afraid to defy both the party and those in positions of government power. The back and forth between the two of them supports the main structure and plot of the film, but for better or worse it’s the humor that provides the more worthwhile substance. Unsurprisingly, the comedy implemented in this film is hilarious and excellent and will guarantee laughs from you one way or another. Witty-yet-at-times-vulgar wordplay and physical humor from the experienced cast dominate most of the slower moments that would have been taken more seriously in a conventional drama and are without a doubt the best parts of the film. They’re almost too good though, because the film’s second half becomes increasingly focused on the Beria-Khrushchev tete-a-tete and it loses much of its comedic edge.
This is not to say that the story of Khrushchev attempting to outmaneuver Beria isn’t interesting or engaging, but by the way The Death Of Stalin is structured, it is clear that Iannucci wanted to keep the comedy and farce distinctly separate from the heavier political drama. There is no shortage of reminders of what exactly Stalin’s regime was like at the time of his death – between the constant arresting of political prisoners and execution of anybody who could be considered a threat to the party. It was a frighteningly real reality that many people had to live through not too long ago, so it’s not exactly a comedic subject. These scenes, which are thankfully not displayed in any overly graphic manner, are heavy but necessary reminders of the impact of Stalin’s regime on the people of that time. They remind that you are not meant to laugh with these political leaders, but at them. However, this can cause some emotional whiplash when the film pivots from an overtly comedic scene to a heavier scene, and vice versa.
These two elements do manage to meld together in a few great scenes scattered throughout the film that truly showcase the creative team’s talent for political satire. One such scene is the film’s opening, where people attend an orchestral performance that Stalin demands a recording of. The men operating the radio were not recording it however, so they start saying and doing ridiculous things to get people to stay so they can replicate the performance. It’s a well executed lampoon on how ridiculous people act under fascism, but not enough of the film is like this. It becomes too gradually focused on keeping you up to date with Beria and Khrushchev’s scheming, and the jokes they force into these more serious scenes fail to land and don’t mix tonally.
There’s enough merit to this film to warrant checking it out in theaters. It’s very well shot and, despite the lack of consistency, is still very funny and engaging. The performances are all hilarious and memorable, and they deliver the humor in such a way that doesn’t feel condescending or immature. If you like Veep or maybe just want to check out a different kind of comedy that’s off the beaten path, then this is definitely worth seeing.
The Death Of Stalin struggles with tonal consistency and a overpowering focus on political drama, but Iannucci and team still deliver on making a satire that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of fascism and underhanded politics while making sure its real life characters are not laughed with but laughed at.