Nobody’s quite sure what links terror and comedy, but most people know that the link exists. After all, what are the two things most people do on roller coasters?
They scream and laugh.
It is this relationship that Armando Iannucci, the brilliant British satirical writer and director, explores in three of his works of political satire: “In The Loop,” “VEEP,” and “The Death of Stalin.”
The plot setup of Iannucci’s 2009 film “In The Loop” is too complicated to describe, but it follows a bunch of government officials both in the UK and the US dealing with the decision of whether to go to war in the Middle East. My description probably makes the movie sound like homework, and it would be if it wasn’t so laugh-out-loud funny.
But the movie is also dismaying. Peter Capaldi’s performance as political enforcer Malcolm Tucker is hysterical — if you are alright with a whole lot of swearing — but also scary. The way in which he twists the arms of well-meaning politicians into following his agenda is funny but also totally believable. After all, the film seems to ask, wouldn’t you be scared by this guy?
In relation to that film, Iannucci’s US series, “VEEP,” which started airing three years after “In The Loop” was released, seems friendlier.
In “VEEP,” the tremendously talented Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a frustrated Vice President of the United States trying to advance her career, hindered by a constantly confused staff and poor decision-making skills. In this series, there is a layer of silliness placed over the nastiness, and while the characters tend toward amoral, their goofiness makes them somewhat likeable. As a result, the show loses part of the sense of horror that makes Iannucci’s other work so sharp, but that loss makes “VEEP” easier to watch.
Iannucci’s most recent work was the 2017 film “The Death of Stalin,” which follows the political scramble in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the titular event. The movie is based partially on true events. It takes the conceit of “VEEP” and “In The Loop” and follows it to the darkness of its logical conclusion. In “VEEP” and “In The Loop,” we watch and laugh at flawed political decision-making processes. In “The Death of Stalin,” we see what happens because of those decisions: people die.
“The Death of Stalin,” which features Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (yes, you read that right), is truly disturbing — we see the violence, torture, and terror of the regime and the people who run it. Most laughs in the film are queasy, and there are long stretches of time where there are no laughs at all. While “VEEP” and “In The Loop” tell us what’s wrong with our democracies, “The Death of Stalin” reminds us why we should be careful not to lose them.
So what makes Iannucci’s work so compelling? After all, anybody could say “there’s something wrong with our democracy, and we should be careful not to lose it.” What makes the way he says it special?
Iannucci has two secret weapons: motion and empathy.
The characters in Iannucci’s work are always on the move — running from one office to another, trying to catch up with someone, rushing to a meeting — and they are always talking. The sense of chaos and energy in this motion is, somehow, extremely engrossing and makes the story irresistible.
The motion keeps you watching, but a strong sense of empathy keeps the characters with you after it’s all over. Most of them are deeply flawed at best, monsters at worst. Rather than keep them at a distance, Iannucci treats his characters with a sensitivity that makes them all the more disturbing.
Iannucci is not interested in the idea of inhuman evil — he is interested in something far more difficult, complicated, and frightening: the evil of humanity.