Armando Iannucci takes his comedy seriously. Beneath the fusillades of vulgar one-liners, craven backstabbing and all-purpose bureaucratic incompetence that shape his work lies a profound respect for the art of governance—not so much admiration but appreciation for the moving parts that keep society’s wheels rolling even when the engine threatens to stall out. Modern comedians are often forced into playing the role of journalist, whether they want to or not. In keeping with his calling, Iannucci approaches his projects with honesty: Instead of eliding truth he presents truth via mockery, only twisting it slightly as occasion demands to suit drama.
You can trace that dynamic from The Thick of It, through In the Loop and Veep, and then especially in his new film, The Death of Stalin, whose subject matter can be inferred from a mere glance. The Death of Stalin marks a major temporal departure for Iannucci, known for skewering contemporary political embarrassments and turmoil, by taking us back to 1953 Russia. Years out from the Great Purge, the country remains in the grip of widespread fear fomented by nationalism, public trials, antisemitism, executions, mass deportations and civic uncertainty. Iannucci asks us to laugh at an era not known for being especially funny.
That’s the give and take at the film’s core: Iannucci drops a punchline and we guffaw, then moments later we hear a gunshot, accompanied by the sound of a fresh corpse hitting the ground. Finding humor in political violence is a big ask, and yet Iannucci’s dialogue is nimble but unfailingly harsh, replete with chafing castigations. We howl with laughter, though we can’t help feeling bad for every poor bastard caught on the receiving end of trademark Iannucci verbal abuse, which typically means we end up feeling bad for every character in his films. He spares no one from insult or injury, even when they’re lying dead on the floor, soaked in their own piss.
Our setup is thus: Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) keels over while reading a note slipped to him by pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), the contents of which amount to censure for the ruination of Russia. His cronies find him prone in his dacha, first in a trickle, then in a flood: Chief among them are Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of Russia’s secret police; Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the Deputy Secretary General; Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who we learn early on has been added to Stalin’s list of enemies. They grieve, and immediately after grieving they start jockeying with one another for command while the body’s still warm.
That’s a hell of an ensemble, but it only scratches the surface. Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend show up as Stalin’s adult children. Later in the film, Jason Isaacs appears as Georgy Zhukov, Field Marshal of the Red Army, and steals the show, a wiseass frat boy in charge of a nation’s military arm. But most of the scheming is done by Beria and Khrushchev, with Malenkov serving as their ideal pawn. “Politicians are petty”: That’s the chief mantra of Iannucci’s career, but it applies doubly to The Death of Stalin on the basis of volume. No figures from his filmography connive quite like Beria and Khrushchev, not In the Loop’s Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) or Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), not Veep’s Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) or Dan Egan (Reid Scott).
As Beria and Khrushchev, Beale and Buscemi conspire, browbeat, manipulate and flat-out lie with breathtaking zeal, which effectively underscores their personal inferiority complexes. They’re both inveterate suck-ups. Beria, recovering from the shock of discovering their leader in dire straights, wastes no time lavishing Malenkov with flattery, like Judas telling Jesus there’s nothing wrong with a kiss between friends. Khrushchev, meanwhile, has his wife maintain a master list of jokes, all the better to keep track of what Stalin finds funny and what he doesn’t while insulating himself against putting his foot in his mouth. They’re pathetic, but pathetic is Iannucci’s bread and butter. At the same time they’re terrifying, because there’s no way to make a comedy about these men without acknowledging that, for all their foibles, they’re monsters.
“If only we hadn’t put away all those highly competent doctors for treason,” goes the lament as Stalin’s assembled cabinet fuss over him. It’s a terrifically composed line, a statement of the obvious where the obvious is the heart of the gag, but it’s also a sobering reminder of the doctor’s plot, which is in turn a sobering reminder of a combination of qualifiers that made Stalin’s Russia such a horror show. At no point does Iannucci ignore the atrocities committed under the Central Committee’s rule, which gives his farce added value: As The Death of Stalin goes on, we grow increasingly desperate for reprieve from its constant stream of historical awfulness.
Iannucci has taken a gamble with this movie, and that gamble has paid off handsomely. A tale of mortal sins as well as venial ones, The Death of Stalin adds modern urgency to his comic storytelling trademarks: As nationalist sentiment rears its ugly head across the globe and macho authoritarian leaders contrive to hoard power at democracy’s expense, a farcical play on the political clusterfuck that followed Stalin’s passing feels shockingly apropos. It takes a deft hand and a rare talent to make tyranny and state sanctioned torture so funny.
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Rupert Friend, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Jason Isaacs
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.