In a film filled with scheming dictators, terrifying war criminals, and backstabbing politicians, it’s interesting that Nikita Khrushchev emerges as one of the most fascinating and interesting characters in Armando Iannucci’s darkly irreverent comedy, “The Death of Stalin.”
The casting alone makes him stand out. Played by Steve Buscemi in all his glorious Busceminess, Khrushchev doesn’t feel like a dictator, but rather like a nasally weasel. With his hunched back, balding head, and hooded eyes, the Soviet politician reminded me more of Mr. Pink from “Reservoir Dogs” than an iron-fisted ruler.
And that’s a lot of what’s fun about this movie. We have this image of political infighting being this passionate power struggle between very serious men. Even cynical interpretations have this viewpoint to some degree. But Iannucci recognizes that politicians are people. And, like most people, they have the capacity to be irresponsible dickheads. It relates a lot to the directorial style of the film. It’s not really shot in an over-the-top way, but rather in a very paired down and realistic manner, almost like a fly on the wall. The content is ridiculous, but it’s made to feel like it could actually happen.
If the direction is toned-down, then the dialogue more than compensates. Iannucci has always had a knack for stylized, theatrical dialogue, and this film is no exception. Remember, this is the same writer who brought us Peter Capaldi’s character from “In the Loop,” a man whose dialogue was basically a firehose of profanity. Through his writing, the elite, political figures of Soviet Russia have been turned into a bunch of squabbling English majors, mixing cussing and poetry into a seamless string of rapid-fire insults. A lot of the dialogue feels very modern too; you wouldn’t expect to see the characters in a Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg historical drama to angrily call someone a “testicle.” But it all adds to the irreverent nature of the piece.
A lot of the comedy comes from the fact that these characters screw up in very human and relatable ways. There’s a great miscommunication scene that basically plays like a game of Telephone. There’s the awkward and clumsy way they deal with Stalin’s body. And Khrushchev’s dismayed reaction to being put in charge of the funeral is worth watching just for the look on Buscemi’s face. Now, obviously, these events didn’t actually play out exactly like this in reality. But, interestingly enough, the overall plot is basically historically accurate. Here is Iannucci’s masterstroke: he turns the reality into a joke in and of itself. In his blending of truth and artifice, he turns history into a farce. The point, it seems, is to bring people who proclaim themselves to be important, untouchable, elite figures back down to Earth, showing that they’re capable of being as petty and idiotic as anyone else. So if the nihilistic bloodshed and backstabbings in this film add up to anything, chances are it’ll be just that: a middle finger raised up to those who refuse to look down.