Armando Ianucci (Veep, In The Loop) is one of the best satirists working today—certainly the best working in narrative forms. His latest piece of satire is The Death of Stalin, a Cold War era comedy about, you guessed it, the death of Joseph Stalin. Or rather, it’s about the bureaucratic scramble that follows the death of Joseph Stalin, as his deputies and the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party scramble for power. It’s easy to imagine this as a dead boring, dull grey biopic with an ominous score that swells every time Nikita Khrushchev—Stalin’s eventual successor—appears on screen. But The Death of Stalin could not be further from that History Channel imagining. It’s F*CKING HILARIOUS.
Death is cast flawlessly, starting with Olga Kurylenko as a Stalin-hating pianist and Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev, a beleaguered radio producer tasked with getting a recording of a symphony to Stalin himself. The tone of Death is tricky, because it is an outright comedy, but it’s also about a brutal dictator, so the laughs come fast and frequent, but so do scenes of utter horror, such as nighttime raids and executions. Everyone lives in terror under Stalin’s regime—Andreyev’s whey-faced panic in the face of a failed recording quickly establishes the life and death stakes of even the smallest interactions in Soviet Russia.
The heart of the story isn’t the symphony radio station, though, it’s the Committee of the Communist Party after Stalin dies. His chosen successor is his chief deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), but a power struggle quickly erupts between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD security force. Also along for the ride is Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), who is drunk and conspiracy-minded to incredible comedic effect, and World War II hero Field Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who gets involved with a coup attempt mostly because he seems bored.
A deep dive down Wikipedia reveals that the historical detail in Death is incredibly accurate—Vasily Stalin, for instance, really was raging about conspiracies and had to be sidelined during the state funeral proceedings—but what Ianucci does so well is combine factual detail with scathingly funny satire. These people are so feared among the public, but behind closed doors they’re bumbling bureaucrats and dweebs whose various machinations keep f*cking up and rarely work as planned.
The Death of Stalin is one of the funniest movies in recent memory. There are some disturbing scenes of violence, but one of Death’s best tricks is how effectively harsh Soviet reality is combined with Ianucci’s take on bureaucracy and the power-mad, back-stabbing nerds who keep it running. Death is packed with brilliant jokes, including two great gags, one involving the pee-puddle Stalin left on the floor, and another about getting just the right girl to pose with Malenkov when he’s named Stalin’s successor. Ianucci’s work is about piercing the veil of power and exposing how ridiculous those who seek it can be. The Death of Stalin is a perfect realization of his goals, and easily the best comedy so far this year.