Armando Iannucci’s biting satire takes on history and black comedy in ‘The Death of Stalin’
It is a curious thing, this world, spinning in chaos, its politics no longer bound by gravity. It troubles and amuses Armando Iannucci, a sly satirist with a soft voice, who glances into a coffee cup and, with little warning, ditches his Scottish accent and imitates the leader of the free world.
“Hey, I tell ya, this is the best coffee I’ve ever had. I mean the Seoul coffee was good. But the coffee we had in our hotels, I’ll tell you, there was one day a guy came in, he was from China. China, by the way, is where…,” said Iannucci, as if hitched to one of President Trump’s circuitous thoughts.
“His speech is like five apps opening simultaneously,” Iannucci added of Trump. “He’s engulfed in his own speech bubble. I don’t think you could come up with a fictionalized version of Trump. He’s his own satire.”
Iannucci has been skewering the antics and insecurities of politicians for years. He’s the creator of HBO’s “Veep” and its British forbearer, “The Thick of It,” and his characters speak in skeins of expletives and scathing syllables that reduce rivals to sputtering, withered messes. Like Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in “Veep,” they are funny, bumbling and cruel, hardened in a chicanery that masquerades as public good while stumbling over vulnerabilities that singe the spirit.
Iannucci’s new film, “The Death of Stalin,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles, is a dark comedy about Joseph Stalin, the tyrant of the Soviet Union who killed millions of his countrymen from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. Stalin was a man of gulags and firing squads, a poster villain for the dangers posed by despots. He was at once coarse and calculating — an ideal subject for Iannucci’s narrative mischief and biting wit.
“I was looking three years ago to set a fictional dictatorship in the present day, because I thought something funny is going on,” said Iannucci, who based “Stalin” on the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. “Populist movements. Nationalist movements. Authority figures in Turkey, Russia; Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Something’s not quite right. Democracy’s beginning to look a little precarious. It was funny in a grim sort of Kafka-esque way.”
Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs and Jeffrey Tambor, “Stalin” is wacky-ensemble political theater with a foreboding edge. Sycophants and connivers — from Nikita Khrushchev to Vyacheslav Molotov — navigate the psychology and bureaucracy of a communist state, where people went to bed fully dressed in the event that the secret police plucked them from their homes in the pitch of night. The film infuses menace with humorous set pieces, including Stalin dying in his own urine while apparatchiks argue over whether they should convene a quorum and vote to call a doctor.
“I went back and looked at Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ [a 1940 parody of Hitler], and you’ve got some of the funniest ever Chaplin scenes interspersed with scenes from the Jewish ghetto,” said Iannucci. “It’s tricky, and I knew it would be. It would rise or fall on that balance. If we didn’t get it right, it would either be too grim to be funny or not believable because it’s too silly.”
Russia has banned “The Death of Stalin” as an affront to its history. The film has already opened in Europe, and critics there have generally praised it. Some, however, thought it not as incisive as Iannucci’s 2009 cinematic directorial debut, “In the Loop,” a statecraft riff on plans by the U.S. and Britain to invade a Middle Eastern country. In its review of “Stalin,” the Guardian wrote: “The tone ends up being oddly serious, the comedy bleak rather than black, and the final product is somehow both more somber and less caustic than Iannucci’s sharpest, silliest work.”
Roots of a filmmaker
Iannucci, 54, is a slight man with an anarchist’s wiles; when he speaks, his hands appear to be fidgeting with an invisible Rubik’s Cube. Unlike his foul-mouthed characters — notably Malcolm Tucker, the acid-tongued crisis manager in “The Thick of It” — he is polite and inquisitive, perhaps the result of his years at Oxford, where he studied the poet John Milton, or his boyhood days amid ever-questioning Jesuits in a Scottish grammar school. He brims with metaphor, and one senses that he is often shortlisted for dinner parties.
He lives in England with his wife and children. (His son, Emilio, appears in “Stalin.”) Iannucci often travels to America and is conversant in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. He can decipher the anger that led to the British vote to leave the European Union; recently, he was reading “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff, a book that led to him riffing on former press secretary Sean Spicer and Trump’s strange post-inauguration speech to the CIA.
“He’ll never accept anything at face value,” Timothy Simons, who plays smug and despicable Congressman Jonah Ryan on “Veep,” said of Iannucci. “He’ll keep digging and digging until he finds five or six layers of information, which then turn into five or six layers of jokes.” Not all of which, including Selina Meyer’s embarrassing, in-her-pants accident, are political or satirical. “He will never let anything get in the way if he feels it’s truly and inherently funny in its bones,” Simons added.
Iannucci’s father was an Italian partisan who during World War II immigrated to Britain, where he worked as a coffee machine salesman, ran a pizza factory, but never became a citizen and couldn’t vote. “I said to him once, ‘Why don’t you vote? It’s important,’” said Iannucci. “And he said, ‘The last time I voted, [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini got in.’” He laughed, but in the telling of his father’s layered and inventive life, it was easy to detect Iannucci’s passion for Charles Dickens’ intricate novel “David Copperfield,” which he is adapting for a film.
Stories beyond the Earth have also intrigued Iannucci. He is developing a pilot for HBO that is set 40 years in the future, at the height of space tourism. It’s less political satire than a look at human interaction amid constellations and zero gravity. “I’ve always been into sci-fi,” Iannucci said. “The more you analyze the universe, the more the idea of gods and ghosts diminishes, but also the more mysterious it becomes. It’s mind-blowing. It’s an unanswerable question that I kind of like.”
Back to ‘Stalin’
An air of cosmic ease settled over a room in a church hall where the cast of “Stalin” read lines for weeks before shooting. Iannucci said the practice was ideal for finding out which lines worked and which didn’t. Isaacs, who plays Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, said that on set, it felt like summer camp with karaoke, with actor Paul Whitehouse playing guitar between takes.
“Armando wasn’t like lots of directors who feel they have to provide the energy on the set, jumping up and down,” said Isaacs. “He had a nap every lunchtime, which I was terribly impressed by. You never felt a hint of anxiety from him. He was so confident and easy. Not arrogant. He was a man who knew what the film was, what the tone was, which was reassuring, because when I read [the script], I thought, ‘This could go down in flames.’ It’s such a risky, bold thing to do.”
Much of Iannucci’s work — “Stalin,” “Veep,” “In the Loop” — glides the edge of going too far before finding restraint that keeps it at once outrageous and quite real. One of his favorite works of political literature is Robert Caro’s multi-part biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which inspired “Veep.” The Johnson story, Iannucci said, epitomizes the tragicomic: a powerful man and a prodigious senator who suddenly finds himself playing second fiddle as vice president to John F. Kennedy.
For all their pettiness, egos and dark motivations, Iannucci said he understands the promise and temptations of politicians like Johnson.
“Some are very good, some are not so good,” he said. “All of them are fallible; a lot have principles, others not so much. I sympathize with them. I want politics to work. What frustrates me is seeing politicians who you know are gifted and talented but are reining in their talents and ideas for the sake of the short term.”
The coffee cup Iannucci had used earlier to summon Trump was empty. The shade beyond his table was narrowing, and out at the pool, people with laptops and paperbacks, some looking as if they had just wandered in from a long night, camped in the sun. The concierge was crisp, the valets watchful. It was a sliver of L.A., a momentary, blissful detachment from the world, which, naturally led to:
“What frightens me? A number of things,” said Iannucci, as a breeze lifted. “We don’t really engage anymore with people who hold an opposing point of view. We block them, we ‘unfollow’ them. We give them a hashtag. ‘If you disagree with me, I find that not only offensive, but I find it threatening, and I would rather you weren’t here now, in this conversation.’ The idea of engagement is becoming more alien. But the whole Constitution is predicated on different groups talking to one another so they can compromise.”
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