Armando Iannucci's foul-mouthed and funny The Death of Stalin, a comedy depicting the intricate, frenetic power struggle after the old monster's death in 1953, would be a brilliant, harrowing film even without all its contemporary resonance. It's filled with the kind of rapid-fire intramural contempt that Iannucci has made his stock-in-trade: His films and shows (In the Loop, The Thick of It, Veep) revel in the loathing and vitriol expressed by political figures who are ostensibly on the same side. But here, he stretches his style, too, depicting the Stalinist police actions with a combination of action-movie kineticism and grisly slapstick, turning bullet-to-the-head NKVD executions into choke-on-your-laughter punchlines. It's all part of the plan: He riles you up, makes you cackle, then sends your mind somewhere terrible.
The film is also shockingly accurate. Sure, Iannucci gives his actors leeway with accents -- so that Steve Buscemi's awkwardly scheming Nikita Khrushchev sounds curiously like a mousy Brooklyn wise-ass; Simon Russell Beale's murderous, pedophiliac secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria sounds like a smug British politician; and Adrian McLoughlin's Joseph Stalin has a snide, cockney accent. But The Death of Stalin captures the historical reality of the Politburo's double-crosses, all played out in an atmosphere of breathtaking, almost mystical paranoia.
It's all so simultaneously horrible and hilarious that any question of whether it's OK to laugh at this stuff -- which, sadly, is the kind of question that gets asked these days -- becomes moot. As Stanley Kubrick did with Dr. Strangelove, Iannucci has built a satire not by twisting the truth but by nudging reality just a few inches further in the direction it was already going.