A person does not have to follow politics closely to understand political satire and The Death of Stalin proves you do not have to be an expert on Russian history to laugh at a movie about one of the Soviet Union’s most tumultuous power struggles. Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop), the movie has a fast-paced wit and intriguing story that make it the one of the better movies to be released in this short year.
The Death of Stalin takes place in 1953 after the sudden passing of the Soviet leader. The members of the Central Committee of the country immediately begin plotting to take Stalin’s place. The movie is led by an ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, and Paddy Considine.
The writing in The Death of Stalin is top notch. As the title implies, the impetus for the movie is serious and moments are treated with the appropriate gravity. Iannucci is able to navigate a delicate tightrope and masterfully inject comedy into moments that would seemingly seem too weighty for laughs. Slapstick involving dead bodies, silly one liners during funerals, and physical comedy during autopsies all work together harmoniously. Humor is toned down at the right moments, highlighting the severity of these scenes. For example, the climax is appropriately tense. The movie’s tone effectively changes numerous times without frustrating or confusing its audience.
The movie moves and tells its story nicely due to writing that neither takes its time or holds its audience hand. The plot unfolds in ways that is not entirely relatable but is completely logical. Characters do not so much develop as they do reveal themselves as the movie progresses. Many movies struggle to keep an ongoing feeling of uncertainty, but The Death of Stalin never falters and constantly has its audience wondering what is going to happen next.
The greatest strength of The Death of Stalin is how witty it is. Characters are rarely left speechless and there are numerous one liners and lengthy exchanges. However, the quick wit of the movie is not limited to funny rejoinders. Everyone also seems to have an idea when called upon. Again, the movie never overplays its hand and something that can quickly become annoying only highlights the intelligence of the people we have met.
A great movie can only go so far if it does not have the right cast. The Death of Stalin has an ensemble cast that work well together. Buscemi stands out as Nikita Khrushchev while Simon Russell Beale nearly steals every scene. The biggest problem with ensemble casts is many times one or two characters will overshadow everyone else. This never happens in The Death of Stalin and while some roles are larger than others, no one in the film is made to be superfluous.
The Death of Stalin is the perfect mix of drama and comedy in a biting political satire. It never takes itself too seriously while also refusing to downplay the harshness of events. Add in the excellent writing and acting and The Death of Stalin is the best movie of 2018.