Veep, Armando Iannucci’s HBO political satire, has held up considerably well since he left the show a few years ago. He’s one of the best satirists working today. He’s studied the political systems of multiple countries and has seemed to nail each one. The Death of Stalin plays a lot like Veep actually, only with more public executions.
When Joseph Stalin dies in 1953 Russia, his buffoonish underlings, his supporters, his enemies and his family engage in a game of wits as they try to figure out what the future holds for this nation at peril. What follows is a game of treachery, deceit, and backstabbing, metaphorically and, perhaps, literally.
The cast of this film is interesting, to say the least. No one is doing a Russian accent. British actors sound British and American actors sound American. Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs — these are not people you’d think to put together in the same film, but they all have solid comedic chemistry.
This film is much darker than Iannucci’s previous works because this time it’s not reputations at stake, it’s people’s lives. Stalin is still very much a comedy, but it’s also kind of a horror film. It lands the joke, but it leaves you with a very bitter aftertaste.
The Death of Stalin draws parallels to the current American political climate. It’s interesting to figure exactly which parts of the administration Iannucci was inspired by. He’s hinted in interviews about a Steve Bannon figure, or of a Paul Ryan figure. That comes across fairly clear, but to other points, it’s interesting to pick that apart after you watch this film. What I just described makes this sound like an Saturday Night Live sketch, but I promise you this is different. It’s simultaneously more sophisticated and a lot nastier.
In the end, I found this film biting, dark and quite funny. You’ll know within fifteen minutes if the gallows humor in this film is not for you. I don’t see it being for everyone. It’s cynical and mean, the blackest kind of comedy. It makes hilarity out of real-life horror, and it’s unfortunately timely.