Watch The Death of Stalin

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: The Death of Stalin

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: Moscow, 1953: when tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin drops dead, his parasitic cronies square off in a frantic power struggle to be the next Soviet leader. Among the contenders are the dweeby Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the sadistic secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). But as they bumble, brawl, and backstab their way to the top, just who is running the government?

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Every day we’re forced to hear about the latest audaciously stupid thing being done by the government that is being run by Donald Trump and the gaggle of goofballs from the Republican party. So maybe it’ll be therapeutic to see how a pack of corrupt, dysfunctional, power-hungry assholes in another country do everything they can to double-cross each other and take over the Soviet Union for their own self-gain after the sudden death of their fearless leader.

The Death of Stalin is written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the brilliant satirist who gave us the Emmy-winning HBO series Veep, as well as its British predecessor The Thick of It, which was also spun-off into the feature film In the Loop. If you like the fast-talking, vicious, and sharp-tongued dialogue of those shows, then you’ll be rolling in laughter here. Though it’s a little more dry than Iannucci’s typical comedies, it’s still packed with laughs, and we named it one of the funniest movies of 2018.

The movie primarily focuses on Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Georgy Malenkov, and Interior Ministry (NKVD) Lavrenti Beria in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death, played by Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Simon Russell Beale respectively. Beyond that, there’s also a cavalcade of Communist cohorts played by the likes of Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Rupert Friend and more. Everyone has something to gain from the death of Joseph Stalin, and they’re willing to do whatever they need to in order to take advantage of it.

What makes The Death of Stalin so damn funny is the seriousness with which everything is dealt with, giving us much more of a black comedy than typically seen in Veep and The Thick of It. Everything is played straight, and it only adds to the hysterics. On top of that, the entire cast speaks without Russian accents. They’re all using their native voices, mostly from various parts of the United Kingdom and Europe with a couple from the United States. It makes everything feel far more natural, and it’s a stroke of genius when it comes to making the jokes land fast and furious.

You can’t go wrong with a comedy that was deemed an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and part of an “anti-Russian information war” by Nikolai Starikov, head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party. Starikov went on to say:

“The death of any person is not a subject for comedy, and even more so the death of a head of state and a great leader. He was the leader of a state that was an ally of Great Britain during the war. Could you imagine the Russians making a film mocking the death of a British king?”

Hilarious!

During these troubled times, it’s nice to see some bumbling bureaucrats doing everything they can to grab power while they have a chance. It shows how much dysfunction lies behind governments and how petty everybody can be when there’s something to be gained. Iannucci’s skewering of the American government in Veep was right on the money, so much that the show started to be startlingly and unsettlingly prescient about the state of politics in the United States. So it’s nice to see him take a stab at satirizing another country for a bit so we can forget how terrible things continue to be here in America.

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