I was asked a while back (I think on a Clubland Q&A) if I'd seen The Death of Stalin. And I replied that I'd caught it on a transatlantic flight, mainly because I couldn't face another superhero caper or witless "comedy" or animated feature of anthropomorphized cartoon animals virtue-signaling. It turned out to be by Armando Iannucci, an old comrade from the turn-of-the-century Daily Telegraph op-ed page and before that the producer of various BBC Light Ent shows I was a fitful participant on. Armando went on to create "The Thick of It", a sort of foul-mouthed "Yes, Minister!" eviscerating Blairite Britain as only a disillusioned Blairite could, which formula he eventually replicated in America as "Veep". I, on the other hand, went on to CRTV, so one defers with great respect to his judgment over mine - and to his wit: I'm not a great "Veep" watcher, but I gather that since his departure it appears to have degenerated into one of those shows in which Hollywood anatomizes the awfulness of Washington only to flatter and glamorize it.
Anyway, ever since that first mention of my in-flight viewing, I keep getting asked by listeners and readers what I actually made of The Death of Stalin, so I thought I'd have my tuppence-ha'porth. Iannucci directed and co-wrote, with Ian Martin, Peter Fellows and David Schneider, and the film appears to have come and gone leaving nary a trace - it opened in 2017, but I confess I'd never heard of it until that 2018 flight. Upon investigation, I see it got rave reviews from the London critics, and sniffier ones from professors of Soviet history pointing out this or that historical inaccuracy, most of which are no more than a bit of narrative telescoping necessary to focus on the expiry and immediate aftermath of Comrade Stalin in early 1953.
The film opens brilliantly with a telling vignette of life under Uncle Joe. The story first surfaced in the purported memoirs of Shostakovich, and I remember hearing a BBC radio play on the incident a few years later. At any rate, old Stalin is back at the dacha and listening to a radio concert that ends with the Mozart Piano Concerto No 23. The monster is so moved by the performance that upon its conclusion he calls up Radio Moscow and asks the programme manager to send him a recording of the concert. The exec scurries into the engineering booth. Er, no, sorry, we didn't record it, say the lads; nobody told us to. For a moment, there is the grim realization that they're all gonna die. But then the old survival instinct reasserts itself: Why don't we just play it again? The producer hurries down into the auditorium, but the audience is already leaving and so have half the orchestra. He locks the doors, but his efforts to corral them all back are not wholly successful, and he needs, apart from anything else, a replacement conductor, the original having been knocked unconscious in the mêlée. They find one, out of favor but needs must, and they rouse him from his slumbers and drag him in. (These men are amusingly billed in the credits as "Conductor One" and "Conductor Two", surely a motion-picture first.) And so the concerto is played again that night, and a recording is made, and at the end of it the pianist, Maria Yudina, slips a note into the sleeve of the disc.
The recording is hurriedly dispatched to Stalin at his dacha. And he listens for the second time (as he thinks) to a performance he has never heard. And once again he is moved to tears - until the folded piece of paper slips from the sleeve and he reads a note from Maria Yudina telling him he has ruined the country. Stalin has a massive stroke and falls to the floor.
Whether or not every aspect of the Yudina/Mozart incident happened as portrayed (in real life there was in fact a "Conductor Three") is less important than what it tells us - of the state of perpetual anxiety in which the subjects of a hardcore dictator live. It's different from being the subject of a medieval monarch whose reach to you in your hovel was, as Tocqueville acknowledged, very limited; and it's different from being the average fellow in, say, early twentieth-century England who, as A J P Taylor observed, had virtually zero contact with the British state other than when visiting the post office. In Stalinland every aspect of life was a contact with the state at the highest level and potentially fatal - including even a concert of Mozart. In a Soviet state everything is political. Thus, when the stroke-stricken Stalin is found the following morning, those seeking to restore him to life dither for seven hours before deciding to call a doctor and, when they do, they're forced to deal with the consequences of a society in which all the good doctors have been purged and sent to the gulags. So to attend the ailing strongman they are obliged to rustle up the only doctors left: the extremely old, extremely young, and extremely inept.
In an age in which your life can be derailed by an infelicitous tweet, the wrong joke, a misgendered pronoun, once free and carefree societies now seem to be moving toward living in a similar state of perpetual anxiety in which your fellow citizens are incentivized to get you lest you get them. To some of us that might be more fertile soil than the machinations and manipulations of staffers, spinners and minders committed to saving a politician from himself. But Messrs Iannucci and Martin have pioneered a proven comedic formula and understandably have little wish to depart from it. So a lot of what follows plays like "Veep" in a dacha: men in rooms bickering and jockeying. Where traditional foreign historical drama is played out in RADA accents, The Death of Stalin is conjured in the vowels of oikish Cockney and hearty Yorkshire, to the point where the token American - Steve Buscemi - seems distractingly out of place. Perhaps this is intentional, as, playing Krushchev, he's the fellow they've all agreed on (at least initially) is the easiest to screw over. Buscemi's Kruschev is twitchily ingratiating, fawningly solicitous, in contrast to his principal rival, Simon Russell Beale's Beria, cool, composed and cruel. Jeffrey Tambor's Malenkov is the slack-mouthed rictus of a deputy who can't quite rise to the occasion, Michael Palin is a lugubrious Molotov, and Jason Isaacs plays Marshal Zhukov like the late Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart.
These are all splendidly watchable actors, as are Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin's semi-deranged progeny. At the court of the Tsar it was easy: the king is dead, long live the king. But in Stalin's dacha the king is dead, long live who ...and what? You don't want to make your move too late, but lurking at the back of everyone's paranoia is the suspicion that this may all be some giant leg-pull by the old boy designed to entrap you: In a mad world, stranger things have happened. So a top-notch cast has a grand old time panicking in the void and attempting to clamber out, and gets a lot of things right, particularly the way a truly totalitarian state embraces everything, from the cultural flourishes at memorial observances to the rape and torture in the dungeons of the Lubyanka. The top-billed funny men are supported by legions of obsequious courtiers and supplicants and a magnificently somber score by Christopher Willis, underlining the point that, for a dictator's supporting cast, the black comedy is always straightforwardly tragic.
Yet as the film proceeds it gets a little less sure-footed and winds up rather more "Veep" than Volga, with a dénouement that seems perfunctory and unearned. In a sense, the Politburo's fears were correct: A monster can hold a prison state together through sheer force of personality. After Stalin, the Soviet Union ossified under a series of non-entities ever more enervated and waxen - Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko... And yet it nonetheless endured for four decades. That is the power of the apparat, of a vast machine of mediocrity, of third-rate bureaucrats leaning on fourth-rate clerks to torment fifth-rate minions. The beauty of the opening is that it shows how even the highest achievements of our civilization - Mozart - are swallowed by such a machine. I would have liked a little more of that. Blairite Britain was a shallow place, and "The Thick of It" had its measure. The Death of Stalin too often settles for the thin of it.
There'll be plenty of movie talk on the Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, sailing up the Alaska coast in early September. Among Mark's guests will be Dennis Miller, star of Disclosure, The Net, What Happens in Vegas and, of course, Bordello of Blood, as well as Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of last year's Gosnell. And Kathy Shaidle, who covered for Steyn in Mark at the Movies last summer, will also be aboard. Cabins are going spectacularly fast - and we're very nearly sold out. If your preferred accommodations are showing up online as unavailable, do call or email Cindy, our excellent cruise manager, and she might be able to pull a few strings: If you're dialing from beyond North America, it's +1 (770) 952-1959; if you're calling from Canada or the US, it's 1-800-707-1634. Or you can email your query here.