The plot, of course, is the title. On 5 March 1953, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) died four days after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that went untreated for several hours owing the uncertainty, fear, and political calculation on the part of his inner circle. This led to a crisis of power that wouldn't be resolved until two years later, at which time Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) took solitary control over the country. The Death of Stalin, adapted from a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin, condenses all of that to just several days: the end of the action is the day of Stalin's funeral, 9 March, and other historical events are compressed to fit into the busiest, nastiest week of bare-knuckle politicking you could possibly imagine.
It is a flawless fit for the sensibilities of director Armando Iannucci, officially sharing a screenplay credit with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, though the process was apparently more of a workshop than an act of screenwriting. The end result is such a tightly-fitted machine of intricate bureaucratic plotting that you'd never guess that it didn't emerge fully-formed out of Iannucci's forehead. Anyway, Iannucci is probably best known west of the Atlantic as the creator of the TV satire Veep, though in my heart he will always be the man behind a different TV satire, The Thick of It, along with its 2009 feature-film spin-off In the Loop - it is best to avoid absolute declarations, but if someone went around calling The Thick of It the single best comedy about the political process in the history of filmed media, I would not be quick to correct them. Even then, Iannucci's career is deeper than political satire; my knowledge of him goes back to the 1994 news media satire The Day Today, which was itself a remake of a radio program, and it led to a small empire of shows centered around the fatuous infotainment personality Alan Partridge.
The point being, there are two things Iannucci loves, and ruthlessly mocking politics as a life-and-death struggle conducted by egocentric idiots is only one of them. He also loves mocking the idiots themselves, and if there's one true throughline in his work, I think that's it: prodding at the ugly, hilarious reality that our world is largely a construction of the most unbelievably venal sorts of men who could not possibly be less worth of the charge. The Death of Stalin takes that to its most absurdist end point: the men are as venal as could be, and they also operate in a system where all of them can indiscriminately have anyone they like murdered.
Perhaps on account of the likelihood that Khrushchev is the only name involved in all of this that the audience can be safely guaranteed to know (though I imagine plenty of viewers will be surprised to learn that Molotov was the name of a person before it was the name of a homemade grenade), Iannucci and company sort of make him the protagonist and the closest we get to a sympathetic figure. And historically, Khrushchev was invested in rolling back the violent excesses of Stalinism, so if we need a character to somewhat like, he's a fair choice. Really, though, it's a film largely on the model of In the Loop, giving us a third-person view of the decisions made by several different, mutually antagonistic people (all of them helpfully identified with onscreen text): Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, whose chummy repulsiveness as the most blatantly evil person in the film makes him the stand-out in an outstanding ensemble), head of the NKVD - the secret police - is the next-biggest character, and then we have the rest of the Council of Ministers: Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the spineless heir-apparent to Stalin's position; doddering Stalinist die-hard Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), whose loyalty remains unwavering even when told he was one Stalin's kill list; and then mostly filling in the background, we have Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley). These men, all of them craven, only some of them openly psychopathic, drag a few bystanders into their power games: most notably, Stalin's children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the alcoholic sociopath Vasily (Rupert Friend), as well as war hero Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and dissident pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko).
A lot of names, and I won't even bother going into the plot anymore. Suffice it to say that The Death of Stalin luxuriates in the minutiae of how wicked plans are hatched and executed (or thwarted) over the course of its dense 107 minutes, and it does this while also being inordinately hilarious. It's a tightly-controlled movie, with none of the shagginess that so often accrues to talky comedies: Iannucci uses depth staging in the construction of some fantastic gags both as a way of telling the story - see where these various players are relative to each other - as well as simply for the pleasure of maneuvering people around in space in ingeniously funny choreography (one of the film's biggest laughs comes from Buscemi sidling sideways, and then sidling back). It's also edited by Peter Lambert with exacting precision, relying mostly on long takes but always breaking them apart because of a keen narrative reason to do so, or to make sure the right part of a joke is emphasized (the laborious process of raising the dying Stalin off the ground and carting him into his bedroom is a particularly fine example, mixing group shots to emphasise the overall absurdity of the moment with close-ups to act as punchlines).
It's a heartwarming reminder that a comedy can be snugly built without having to be showy about it; it's a heartwarming reminder, for that matter, that a comedy can be snugly built at all, and that's already enough to make it one of the funniest movies in a while. What pushes it even higher is the potency of the material the filmmakers are cracking jokes about: if the satire is less immediately consequential than the anti-Iraq War savagery of In the Loop, it's not like hideously greedy men jockeying for positions of power in times of governmental crisis has ever or will ever go out of style.
To underscore this, Iannucci has his stacked cast play things with completely uninflected naturalism. Isaacs is the only member of the cast speaking with a put-on accent, and it's still not a Russian accent; everybody else simply hauls off with their native voices, and this as much as anything wrenches the film out of any kind of "costume drama" plainness. It fits the material: the historical figures involved were from all over the very large, multi-ethnic USSR, and had wildly different ways of speaking, but of course we don't expect that from a movie of this sort; that we actually get it underlines the conflicts of personalities, while also letting the film focus on the business at hand: watching assholes scheme and curse (they curse a lot, though never near as much as Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It) and attack each other, in a manner that is timeless even as its particularly intense form here is defined by the nature of the Soviet system
The film's solitary limitation - I cannot fairly call it a "flaw" - is that the plotting gets so involved that, as it approaches the end, The Death of Stalin somewhat abandons being a comedy. Part of this is intentional, to remind us after all the jokes that this was a sordid, evil, violent regime, and the loss of human life under Stalin and his lackeys was a horrific crime, even as the ridiculous smallness and pettiness of the men executing those crimes could only ever be the stuff of ludicrous comedy. Part of it, I think, is not intentional, and that's the part that disappoints me. The Death of Stalin is funny as hell, but it is not the most funny. The Thick of It and In the Loop, in contrast, were the most funny. And so this is kind of a step down; but only a small one, and merely down to the level of "the funniest, smartest, most unforgiving comedy in years, and the best satiric film of the 2010s". Which is still an okay level to be at.