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.