Armando Iannucci's biting satire takes on history and black comedy in 'The Death of Stalin'

Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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, 1/8Italian dictator Benito3/8 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 1/8the script3/8, 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.

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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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