When asked about political satire in President Donald Trump’s era, Armando Iannucci (Creator of “Veep” and writer/director of “The Death of Stalin”) said “What's happening now is so absurd. When the person at the center of it is his own entertainer, when he's in a sense making content for television, it's difficult to do something that exaggerates that.”
Perhaps this is why Iannucci's latest film, “The Death Of Stalin,” is a period piece. In a world where the self-parody of the Trump presidency is un-spoofable, Alec Baldwin getting on “Saturday Night Live” and making fun of Trump will never match the insanity of Trump himself. Instead, “The Death Of Stalin” parodies the power struggle for control of the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin).
The central humor behind “The Death of Stalin” does not lie in grand comedic set pieces but in the mundanity of hideous acts. This choice allows the film to play on the banality of evil, and let Iannucci's famed dialogue become the star feature of the film.
The best example of this is the film’s running joke on how one of Stalin's advisors, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), is simply unable to keep track of who is an enemy of the state and who is an ally. Jokes like these are peppered throughout the film’s dialogue, and force the audience to laugh at the brutality of the USSR.
As hilarious as the film's dialogue is, none of it would work without the actors’ performances. In fact, the casting of the film itself acts as its own form of satire. Instead of having American and British actors attempt to replicate their characters’ historical Russian accents, each individual in the entire cast speaks in a natural accent.
Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev with a fast-talking New York accent that gives the character a delightfully crafty menace, while Jason Isaacs performs Field Marshal Zhukov with Yorkshire bravado, providing the character with a hilarious hypermasculine contrast to the impish politicians.
In the film’s funniest performance, Rupert Friend gives Vasily (Stalin's son) a posh rich kid accent that allows the character to embody the hilarity of the stereotypical whiney son of successful parents. These historically inaccurate accents allow the film’s performances to boost the satire of its masterfully crafted dialogue.
However, the film is not perfect. Iannucci’s camera work has improved since his last film (“In The Loop”), but his camera still mostly serves the purpose of recording his masterful dialogue. Perhaps as Iannucci becomes more experienced as a director, his camera work will further develop. The lack of artistry in the film’s cinematography does not detract from the film’s strengths, but it does prevent the film from reaching true levels of masterpiece.
Most importantly, the film’s humor accomplishes what all great political satires attempt. It forces the audience to reckon with the morality of laughter. The film’s parody of the USSR does not shy away from revealing the brutal human rights violations present in Stalin's totalitarian regime.
By making the audience laugh at the oppression of Stalin's regime, the film allows the audience to both view and confront the absurdity of totalitarianism. In an age where the American political process seems to be heading toward chaos, “The Death Of Stalin” permits us to laugh in the face of our own country’s disarray.