The year 2018 has made us all connoisseurs of misrule. Thus Armando Iannucci’s speedy farce The Death of Stalin has relevance. Still, at a recent San Francisco appearance, Iannucci stressed that he’d shot it in the summer of 2016, lest viewers suspected that it was some sort of allusion to the court of Trump. (Putin didn’t like it—it was banned in Russia.) It finds comedy in the plight of shivering people, fearing the knock on the door in the middle of the night. And it lampoons that infuriating boredom that comes from serving a man who always must be right.
One evening in 1953, the highest executives of the USSR are socializing with Stalin. As played by Adrian McLoughlin, this enemy of mankind is smaller than you’d expect. He gathers his cohorts to watch an old cowboy movie in a language they don’t understand. Later that night, Stalin is struck by a brain hemorrhage; he’s flat on the floor in a large puddle of piss, which will soon be diluted by the crocodile tears of Stalin’s staff. No one wants to be the first to call a doctor, in case he wakes up. The dictator dies, and there is no clear designated successor. However, the portly bespectacled Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD secret police, aims to be Stalin II.
The contenders are nervous weaklings. The darkest horse among them is the diplomat Molotov (Michael Palin). Molotov tries to stay on Beria’s good side even though the secret police chief arrested Molotov’s wife. No one realizes that Nikita Khrushchev, not a prepossessing man, will be the most skilled of the plotters. Like Stalin, Khrushchev was a killer—he admitted later that he had blood on his hands.
Like the ’60s British political comedies it resembles, Death of Stalin may be too clever and too mordant. But it does have tang, with Tom Stoppard-like wordplay and some big and surprising laughs. What’s best about this razory comedy is that just from the tone, you can tell the difference between what’s true and what’s too good to be true, and there’s more of the former than the latter.