Classics of the New Millennium: "The Death of Stalin" with Sam Adams

Slate's film editor joins me for an appreciation of Armando Iannucci's Politburo satire -- blistering history by way of Monty Python and Preston Sturges.

Classics of the New Millennium: "The Death of Stalin" with Sam Adams
from left: Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin (prone), Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, and Simon Russell Beale in “The Death of Stalin”

Armando Iannucci’s 2017 political comedy “The Death of Stalin” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming and for VOD rental on various platforms) is not only a bona fide 21st century masterpiece but one of the few genuine satires to be put on film — satire in the Swiftian sense; satire that leaves a viewer as bloodied as the characters. Iannucci, best known in the US as the creator of “Veep” but beloved in his native UK for the government sitcom “The Thick Of It” and for the 2009 film “In The Loop,” has said he wanted to make himself and audiences extremely uncomfortable when he was turning the 1953 post-Stalin battle for succession into a farce, not so much of the slamming-door variety but the blithering-idiot kind. So we have gifted soft-shoe practitioners like Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, and Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, but we also get Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police and a corpulent black hole of evil so unrepentant he can take your breath away. And while the wordplay and bustling character comedy may be worthy of Palin’s Pythons or a Preston Sturges classic, we are never allowed to forget the real deaths and depredations, the Kafkaesque perversion of language, and the paranoia and sycophancy that are daily life in an authoritarian state. Watching “Death of Stalin,” we laugh uproariously at the manipulations of these homicidal little bureaucrats, and then we choke on our laughter, in part because they’re closer than we’d like to think.

Needless to say, it’s not much of a date movie, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my original Boston Globe review occasioned a handful of huffy letters from readers who went to see “The Death of Stalin” and did not find it funny At All. And, in a very real sense, they’re correct. But, as my colleague and friend the film critic Sam Adams points out in this week’s WatchCast, the success of a true satire may actually be gauged by the number of people who don’t get the joke.

Have a look at the movie if you haven’t seen it already, and then listen to our discussion (or watch it on YouTube with extra visual aids!), in which we try to define the line between comedy and horror and marvel at how easily, how pitilessly Armando Iannucci is able to set up camp there. I wish he’d come back to America and make a satire about our current political state, but we may be well past satire by now. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to share this brief and relevant sound clip, shared with me by my podcast editor, of a recent comment from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in conversation with Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie.)

Thanks for listening! Have any thoughts? Want to suggest a movie for this series? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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