In Armando Iannucci's most known works, namely Veep and In the Loop, traditional storytelling takes a backseat to foul-mouthed political operatives telling each other to shut the fuck up. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
So when The Death of Stalin reveals itself to be a straightforward feature film, abandoning the handheld docu-style that has served Iannucci so well, it's a little unexpected. Yet it all makes sense by the end; this is part-farce, part-period piece, a story illuminating and absurd enough to warrant conventional treatment that augments its innate insanity.
Based on a French graphic novel, and also history, the plot follows Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) as he pushes for power in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin's death. His chief rival, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), runs the secret police and attempts to assert his own level of control over Stalin's drunken son (Rupert Friend) and a foreign minster who was previously added to a list of enemies (Michael Palin). Of course, because most of them are nothing but scheming yes-men, they're only good at toppling each other. Upheaval is often mere seconds away.
And upheaval is what Iannucci does best. His characters were born for politics, which helps make them easy to hate, and a good chunk of his humor derives from their tenacity. They all know that the race is never over until you're dead and buried (literally, in this case) and so watching them unsteadily attempt to outmaneuver their peers is a real treat. It's incredible that any of it is true, let alone half, which also adds an intriguing element of darkness to the proceedings. Though In the Loop is about starting an unjust war, which should be horrifying, the detached politician's perspective makes it feel very far away. There's none of that in The Death of Stalin; we're quite aware that these bumbling men, through their ineptitude, are destroying lives.
In portraying Khrushchev, Buscemi taps back into his Nucky Thompson days, commanding respect and inspiring fear without being the biggest guy in the room. The veteran actor proved on 30 Rock and beyond that he can handle jokes with ease, but Stalin is as much about menace as comedy. There's an air of tension and uncertainty throughout, and Buscemi has become adept at rolling his eyes while also endlessly surveying and assessing the situation. Two decades ago, when he was riding a bomb on an asteroid, no one could've predicted Steve Buscemi's future as an ominous, coercive leading man. Yet here we are.
Jeffrey Tambor also returns to an old favorite, channeling his inner Hank Kingsley as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's successor as Premier. Watching a Tambor character assume a role he's unfit for and devolve into an order-barking tyrant is one of life's great pleasures. And Jason Isaacs pops up halfway through as Georgy Zhukov, head of the Russian army, barking orders as perhaps the most unstable of the bunch. Isaacs proves much funnier than you'd expect, though anyone with a pulse and decent timing can turn Iannucci dialogue into laughs.
The one thing The Death of Stalin lacks is a Malcolm or a Jamie. It's fun to see great actors like Buscemi, Tambor, and Isaacs spout ridiculous insults at each other, but certain folks end up being the perfect vessel for Iannucci's brand of frustrated political satire. There's no Peter Capaldi or Paul Higgins here, which stops Stalin short of being truly memorable.
Regardless, the history lesson it provides is quite timely for everyone suffering through this modern political nightmare: The world has almost always been run by power-hungry sycophants who'll do anything to stay in charge. Now they're just lazily honest about it, and slightly less bloodthirsty.