Photo by Nicola Dove/IFC Films

Photo by Nicola Dove/IFC Films

The Scathing Commie-dy of ‘The Death of Stalin’

Armando Iannucci’s latest film provides razor sharp pseudo-historical satire.

If satire doesn’t draw blood, what’s the point? For years that was the problem with Saturday Night Live, which tended to make its political caricatures into lovable clods, figures of fun rather than fury. (Things have been more barbed around there lately.) In Britain, there’s a long tradition of going for the jugular rather than the jocular, and Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci wields the scalpel with cutting precision. His Oscar-nominated 2009 comedy In the Loop was a scathing look inside UK politics, and he co-created Steve Coogan’s long-running character Alan Partridge, an acidly sketched broadcaster whose first TV talk show was canceled when Partridge accidentally fatally shot a guest. More recently, Iannucci created Veep, HBO’s Emmy-winning political satire.

For his latest big-screen project, Iannucci comes close to perfectly balancing comedy and savagery. The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, looks at the power jockeying among Josef Stalin’s toady underlings following the Soviet dictator’s 1953 demise. Much as Stanley Kubrick drew upon actual nuclear-gamesmanship policies for Dr. Strangelove, Iannucci and his writers seize on real history and cleverly embellish it. For instance, it’s true that Stalin’s staff had to scramble to find a good doctor in Moscow to treat his comatose body: “All the best doctors are in the gulag,” one character says, thanks to one of Uncle Joe’s paranoid purges.

Stalin’s deputies are steeped in self-preservation and backstabbing, so it doesn’t take long for factions to develop. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, an inspired casting) is stuck arranging Stalin’s funeral, but uses his position to undercut his rivals. Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria (a vicious Simon Russell Beale) seems to be outflanking Khrushchev, but overconfidence is not a good strategy in this kind of shark tank. Between them is Deputy Chairman Malenkov, Stalin’s heir apparent, but a man so wishy-washy (especially in Jeffrey Tambor’s weak-kneed performance) that he’s clearly going to be chewed up by his colleagues. Also mixed into the cocktail are Molotov (the very welcome Monty Python genius Michael Palin) and Red Army Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose array of chest-crowding medals might be a little over-the-top even for a North Korean general. Awkwardly, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) hangs around, as does her alcoholic brother (Rupert Friend), who would really like to speak at the funeral—a calamity that can be avoided only by a well-timed flyover by some Russian fighter jets.

The Death of Stalin is busy and crowded, requiring your full attention just to keep up. This includes noticing the way a torture victim might be hurled down a flight of stairs in the background as comic dialogue unfolds in the foreground. Iannucci knows that the stupidity of tyranny almost always has an absurd edge, but he also reminds us that some people get crushed by that. It’s a tricky balance, and it would have been easier to merely poke fun at leaders who seem unaware of their own ridiculousness. But this movie won’t let us forget that the actions of powerful fools have consequences. It’s death—and comedy—by a thousand cuts.

The Death of Stalin

Opens Friday, March 16 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian | Rated R

More in Arts & Culture

A scene from the 2017 Seattle Pride Parade. Photo by Bobby Arispe Jr./Flickr
Seattle Pride Pick List

Maximize your Pride Weekend experience with these standout celebrations and activities.

Hulking out at the ACE Comic Con in Glendale, Ariz. Photo courtesy of ACE Comic Con
The Pop-Up Disruptor Con

ACE Comic Con heads to Seattle this week with a stripped down, star-focused model. Will it work?

Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan is still a teen, making ‘Lush’ an even more ridiculous indie rock achievement. Photo courtesy Ground Control Touring
Pick List: Snail Mail, Sounders Pride, Peach Kelli Pop

The week’s best entertainment options.

Dino-Might

While peppier than its predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom still feels very calculated.

Photo by Brett Curtiss/Flickr
Memories of Prides Past

We caught up with some notable locals to reminisce about their favorite moments from the festivities.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Indignation and Compassion

Cancer season, and summer, begin with choppy waters.

Putting in the Werk

While best known for underground dance music, Kremwerk has quietly fostered Seattle’s alternative queer entertainment scene.

Take dad out to the ball game, take dad out with the crowd… Photo by Elise Lin/Flickr
Father’s Day Pick List

Make the most of a day with the ol’ man with these dad-centric activities.

Speedy Ortiz with the candlestick in the flowery room. Photo courtesy Ground Control Touring
Pick List: Speedy Ortiz, Men in Blazers, Fremont Fair

The week’s best entertainment options.

Most Read