Review: Ensemble sizzles in masterful ‘Death of Stalin’

Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor shine in dazzling political farce

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

A crackling, whip-smart satire that cuts to the bone of governmental power struggles, “The Death of Stalin” has a timely urgency that mirrors today’s political chaos.

Actors Paul Whitehouse, left, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor star in the period comedy “The Death of Stalin.”

Writer-director Armando Iannucci is an ace at this, having also made 2009’s Iraq war send-up “In the Loop” and created HBO’s political satire “Veep.” He’s able to cut through the artifice of politics and cast its players as sniveling, power-hungry dolts, and he’s able to take uncomfortable situations and cut everyone down to size, making them relatable to all.

Here he takes on the 1953 death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the tumult that followed. He starts off with a scene in a concert hall, where a symphony has just been performed. Stalin phones the venue and wants a recording, but no tape was rolling. So a bumbling sound engineer is forced have the performance repeated so it can be taped rather than telling Stalin no, since that would inevitably lead to his execution.

When Stalin keels over, members of his Central Committee — Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs form a tremendous, impenetrable ensemble — assemble, bickering and fighting over the scraps like dogs. Iannucci — he co-wrote the script with David Schneider and his fellow “Veep”-er Ian Martin — creates hysterical situations, with dialogue that pops off like lit firecrackers. “Christ, you look like you’re about to be bulldozed into a lime pit,” Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev tells Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov at one point.

“The Death of Stalin” is a deep farce, but it is rooted in enough political reality that it hardly feels sensationalized. And given the current state of politics, it’s as on-point as a breaking news alert.

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‘The Death of Stalin’


Rated R for language throughout, violence and

some sexual references

Running time: 107 minutes