The Death of Stalin
(Armando Iannucci)

A scene from Armando Ianucci's  The Death of Stalin  {Photo: IFC Films}

A scene from Armando Ianucci's The Death of Stalin {Photo: IFC Films}

Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin is an astonishing exercise in tone management, as it alternates from violent political fatalism to absurdist satirical comedy often (and effectively) and frequently within the confines of a single frame. The film details Stalin’s sudden death and the swift and chaotic demise of a regime built on brutality. Iannucci leverages one cockamamie stunt after another, where his atypical casting decisions and sardonic wit inform a richly rewarding text on bureaucratic effrontery. The ensemble, composed mostly of British and American actors cast in Russian diplomat roles, may initially come across as a stunt. But as the film proceeds, that concern fades as Iannucci stages much of the film’s action as explosive tête-à-têtes – numerous scenes involving Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrenti Beria are verbal acrobatics, displaying linguistic acuity of the highest order. As the film barrels toward its inevitable conclusion, Iannucci doesn’t solicit our sympathies so much as posits a rather frank re-evaluation of what it means to be a government official: they walk around with daggers in their backs, attempting to forge a legacy out of empty promises and lallations of tired slogans. It all comes down to remembering what you said the night before.