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‘The Death of Stalin’ Is Great Satire When It Takes Aim at the Right Targets

An often uproarious new comedy from the creator of ‘Veep’ takes aim at authoritarianism. Wherever did he get that idea?

IFC Films/Ringer illustration

You know how it is. Dying is easy; comedy is hard. And making a comedy about dying is tricky. Wringing laughs from the aftermath of a cerebral hemorrhage is a task best left to professionals. Not that the eponymous stiff in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is somebody to mourn. Discovered prone on the floor by a group of his advisers, the notorious Soviet dictator is little more than an obstacle for them to trip over in the scramble to fill a power vacuum. At least one member of Stalin’s inner circle gamely attempts to give the moment some gravity. “Our general secretary,” he says tragically, “is lying in a puddle of indignity.”

The Death of Stalin seeks to deepen that puddle until it becomes an ocean. Iannucci has always been a comedian who plays dirty, and the movie—adapted from a French graphic novel dramatizing the real-life chaos that followed its namesake’s death—is an attempt to piss all over one of the most murderous legacies of the 20th century. The satire sprays in every direction: In Russia, officials accused Iannucci of denigrating history and labeled the film a “planned provocation” (it has subsequently been banned in the country, joining an ignoble list that also includes Borat and The Interview, both of which proved offensive to the government and/or political allies without literally depicting a former head of state comatose and drenched in his own urine).

The Russians are fuming, but The Death of Stalin has also been described by its director as a not-so-subtle commentary on nascent American authoritarianism. “It’s all about the manipulation of information and the manipulation of facts in a totalitarian way,” Iannucci told Variety just before The Death of Stalin premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. And while the movie was shot before President Donald Trump’s election, the parallels are there. Watching a group of venal, status-climbing insiders jockeying for position at the expense of their Soviet constituency doesn’t feel far away at all; change the names and it could be an adaptation of Fire and Fury.

Iannucci collapses the distance between 1953 and 2018 and Moscow and Washington in an interesting, even daring way. Despite its lavish period detail and scrupulously researched screenplay (by Iannucci and a trio of longtime collaborators), the film does not attempt to have its cast look or speak Russian, or even attempt accents. This isn’t K-19: The Widowmaker, in which Harrison Ford sounded like he was looking for Moose and Squirrel, or even The Hunt for Red October, with its cute translation trickery. Instead of trying to justify having Steve Buscemi play Nikita Khrushchev, the film leans into the absurdity, letting the most nasal Brooklyn voice in cinema breathe freely. The U.K. actors—including stage star Simon Russell Beale and an apparently unretired Michael Palin—enunciate like they’re on the BBC. “I know the drill,” says the late dictator’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend). “Smile, shake hands and try not to call them cunts”; in both writing and delivery, that last line could have come from In the Loop.

If The Death of Stalin isn’t as startlingly funny as that marvelous 2009 film (Iannucci’s first feature after two decades of first-rate television work), it’s only because the mode of attack has grown familiar—not only from In the Loop but also Veep, both of which were essentially quasi-remakes of the brilliant political sitcom The Thick of It, a cynical modern spin on the classic (and comparatively gentle) British program Yes, Minister. In The Thick of It, 10 Downing Street is infested with disillusioned civil servants and vicious spin doctors; Iannucci’s thesis is always that our institutions are as fragile as the overworked, underpaid people who toil there, and just as close to the breaking point on a day-to-day basis.

Stylistically, his comedy exists in the sweet spot between nervy, semi-documentary realism (embodied by a jittery, hand-held camera) and archly stylized dialogue, à la Aaron Sorkin. In fact, one way to look at Iannucci is as Sorkin without the idealism. In the Loop’s portrait of American military might held tenuously in check by the wavering principles of a low-level British politician could have been called No Good Men. Veep is The West Wing purged of anything but pure, bristling ambition. Where Sorkin is narcissistically drawn to figures whose uncompromising brilliance is also their tragic flaw—your Mark Zuckerbergs, your Billy Beanes, your Molly Blooms—Iannucci is a chronicler of straight-up idiocy. To quote another mordant comedy set at the other end of the Cold War, Iannucci is like the Commissioner of The League of Morons.

The Coen brothers set the bar pretty high for smart movies about stupid people; my favorite line in Burn After Reading is when a Russian apparatchik asks Brad Pitt’s hard-bodied, empty-headed personal trainer “you are not ideological?” It’s a question that’s also a statement of fact. In the Coens’ political comedies, including Barton Fink, Hail, Caesar!, and 20th-anniversary birthday boy The Big Lebowski, characters with seemingly strong convictions are always shown to be in it for themselves, and Iannucci mines a similar vein of hypocrisy here.

The bitter joke is that for all their very public shows of grief, Stalin’s advisers aren’t really the ones mourning his passing: Those would be the citizens of a country who’ve been cowed into submission by decades of systematic abuse and the clandestine torture and murder of dissidents. What these highly placed party members all want is the opportunity to give the orders instead of just carrying them out. It’s a psychodrama about sycophants who suddenly sense that power is within their grasp.

As in any proper black comedy, there’s nobody to really root for. The entertainment value lies in the collision of differently angled agendas, not a one of which seems to represent anything different than Stalin’s top-down reign of terror. As World War II hero Georgy Zhukov, Jason Isaacs channels Peter Capaldi’s character from In the Loop, shouting profanities over the rest of the Politburo; the softest figure is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), an almost apologetically vain, beta-male nonentity who’s basically a puppet for secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale). (Tambor shot the film before reports of misconduct on the set of Transparent emerged, and he has subsequently been erased from the film’s marketing materials.) The sharpest knife in the drawer might be the dictator’s daughter Svetlana, played by Andrea Riseborough, whose only desire is to get the hell out of Moscow while she can (and Riseborough proves herself to be an adept comedienne).

Iannucci and his writers have generally stuck to the shape of history here, with the unscrupulous Khrushchev emerging as the victor. The character is a manipulative monster, but it’s nice to see Buscemi win for once, since he’s never made it out of a Coens movie alive. Iannucci has also reimagined certain events in a way that pushes the bounds of creative license. In the film, the NKVD (Communist secret police) opens fire on a large group of mourners at Stalin’s funeral, a grim metaphor for a government that sees its own people as expendable; in reality, they died in a sheer, suffocating crush of humanity. And while scenes of Lavrenti Beria casually beating and sexually assaulting prisoners in police headquarters are meant to be appalling—to puncture the lightly malevolent tone—they don’t work exactly as intended. They’re offensive in a different way, as if Iannucci was showing off, taking advantage of the historical and geographical distance of the scenario as an excuse to go further than he ever could in the stiflingly bureaucratic milieus of his Western burlesques.

This question of “how far is is too far?” is endemic to satire, which has a long-standing responsibility to challenge power, to go for the throat. (No wonder the original subtitle of Mad magazine was “Comedy in a Jugular Vein.”) The answer always seems to depend on which direction the satirist is punching. As long as The Death of Stalin is sticking it to the hypocrites in the Kremlin—mocking their vanity, pride, and other deadly sins—it’s got the righteous riotousness of its creator’s best work. When it tries to wrestle with the consequences of their actions, though, it elicits a different sort of indignity than the one alluded to by Stalin’s inner circle; the comedy becomes soggy with crocodile tears.