The political satire of Armando Iannucci just can’t keep up with our real-world absurdity. His films (In the Loop) and TV work (Veep, The Thick of It) depict our politicians as either hapless bumblers or cutthroat schemers, a portrayal of government that was hilarious before our present-day realities began to outpace it. With every passing day, government becomes harder to satirize, and high-level incompetence is less funny. Perhaps a trip to the past is in order.
In The Death of Stalin, Iannucci brings his sharp ear for political doublespeak and workplace absurdity to the days after the demise of the notorious Soviet dictator, when his underlings jockey for position, forge and break alliances, and compile enough interpersonal drama to make a full season of reality television. No present-day parallels at all.
It’s Iannucci’s best work yet, although it might not be his funniest. For once, the consequences of his characters’ cowardly actions are reckoned with, and their victims are brazenly displayed. Sons turn on fathers, friends plot against friends. In the first scenes, security chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) gives his soldiers their hit lists for the night. Beria pulls one of them aside and points to two names on the list: “Kill him in front of her, then kill her.”
How do we laugh at this? Perhaps it’s because we know it’s an abstraction. Iannucci wisely lets each actor use their natural accent. Beale, who once played Stalin onstage in Collaborators, has a natural British accent, while Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khruschev as a tough New Yorker. As such, we never feel that what we’re watching is real. It’s an approach with a few drawbacks, but it allows Iannucci to make his comedy darker than a Siberian winter without freezing the audience out altogether.
After Stalin dies in the first act, Beri and Khruschev balance competing and concurrent instincts: to amass enough support from their fellow committee members—played by comedy legends such as Jeffrey Tambor and Monty Python’s Michael Palin—while also maintaining a false sense of loss and grief over their beloved leader. Buscemi makes the most of this task, displaying comic exasperation, for example, over being chosen to design Stalin’s funeral—essentially, a glorified event-planning gig—while outwardly appearing humbled and honored at having been chosen for such an important task.
It’s a marvelous setup for comedy. Iannucci gets off his share of one-liners (“How can you run and plot at the same time?!”), displays a sharp ear for wordplay (“When I said ‘No problem,’ I meant, ‘No! Problem!’”) and indulges in the ageless humor of bodily functions, but the more acute brilliance is how he demonstrates the absurd desperation of living under a despot. Stalin may be gone, but revenge killing is close to official policy, and whoever takes his place will surely punish their rivals. It’s this panic that drives every plot development and nearly every laugh.
Dedication to the party is paramount, so any moment in which the characters appear to be acting in their own self-interest could be their undoing. Of course, each of them is doing exactly that in every moment. As the film builds to its nihilistic finale, these strands come together to form a tragically cynical ethos: The best way to protect yourself is to point the finger at someone else. No present-day parallels at all. The Death of Stalin opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.