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At the height of the Cold War, Kremlinologists used to study every public statement or prosaic photo from the Soviet Union for clues on which official was heading for higher office or bound for the gulag. A new movie called “The Death Of Stalin” looks back at the scheming scoundrels who scrambled for power when the Soviet dictator died of a stroke in 1953. The big reveal is that some were more monstrous than others, but all of them were vulgar clowns of invincible stupidity. Armando Iannucci’s absurdist comedy reveals this in a very loose manner of speaking, with straight-faced glee. It isn’t history but free- range fiction, a venomous farce containing nuggets of fact, and if its subjects bear any resemblance to present-day dictators around the world, or authoritarian mugs closer to home, then the movie has hit its target.

Iannucci is the man who created the TV series “Veep.” His directorial style here is somewhere between “The Goon Show” and “The Five Stooges” (plus secondary goons and fools). The quintet of Stalin’s ministers consists of Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Beria, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov and Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan. All of the actors speak English in the accents of their countries of origin. The effect is jarring, as it’s meant to be, though no less so than seeing boastful Khrushchev and loathesome Beria doing drunken belly bumps.

These men are ruthless at best, mass murderers at worst; at first you’re reluctant to join in the spirit of their merriment. And the production feels a bit slapdash, with none of the perfection of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” the sophistication of Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not To Be” or the star power of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”

All the same, “The Death of Stalin” gets off lots of clever jokes—finding a doctor for the comatose Stalin is hard because all the good ones are in the gulag. And it gets at political and historical truths on its own terms. Power doesn’t have to corrupt, the film suggests; many come to it pre-corrupted, as well as ignorant, fatuous and heedless. The most memorable example of unsheathed evil is Beria, who was, in fact, Stalin’s peerlessly murderous executioner. Here he looks a bit like Louis B. Mayer, but there’s no mistaking the man’s madness as he wields his lists of ordinary citizens to be slaughtered, and warns his colleagues that “I’ve got documents on all of you.”

Four writers, Armando Iannucci among them, adapted the script from graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, and Rupert Friend (that’s Peter Quinn from “Homeland”) is Vasily, the dictator’s son. Vasily’s distinction, thanks to Friend’s performance, has nothing to do with who he is politically or historically. He’s just plain funny—funny frantic, haughty or drunk.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.


Joe Morgenstern

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