PARK CITY — Politics and humor often go hand in hand on the big screen. Scan through any best-of list of political comedies and you’ll find titles as innocent as “Dave” or as zany as “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”
Sometimes such movies become connected to real-life controversy. The release for Seth Rogen’s “The Interview” was complicated by threats of retaliation from North Korea, and many felt the release of Barry Levinson’s political spin-doctor farce “Wag the Dog” a month before the break of the Monica Lewinsky scandal offered a remarkable example of life imitating art.
The towering king of political satire will always be Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” which threw tomatoes at Cold War fears and government bureaucracy and featured Peter Sellers in three different roles. This year’s Sundance Film Festival features a pair of films that are eager to join that club.
Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” isn’t the director’s first stab at political humor — he also helmed 2009’s “In the Loop” and TV’s “Veep.” In his new film, we get a madcap portrait of the mayhem that surrounded the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1953. Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor play Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov, two members of the Central Committee who jockey for power in the aftermath of Stalin’s death and hope they don’t get killed themselves in the process.
It may seem a little strange — even insensitive — to apply humor to a history of a man responsible for the death of millions of innocents, and in a recent post-screening Q&A at the festival, Iannucci acknowledged that in the quest for accuracy, he was very careful to balance the funny scenes against the tragic scenes.
“I wanted the funny and the tragic to always exist side by side,” explained Iannucci, “to generate that sense of unease that I think people growing up in that environment must have felt every day.” At the same time, he said, “the more real we made it, actually the funnier it became.”
Iannucci isn’t the only director at Sundance with this contrast in mind. Maxim Pozdorovkin, who directed the documentary “Our New President,” also sees an important relationship between comedy and terror.
“The classic definition of a grotesque is the combination of the horrifying and the hilarious,” said Pozdorovkin, explaining that the humor has a challenging effect on an audience.
“I think it destabilizes your position,” he said. “I think that the presence of humor makes it harder for us to hold on to our own moral high ground as viewers, and I think that that in itself is a productive thing. … It leads to a kind of, even a more critical engagement with our values.”
It was inevitable that current U.S. President Donald Trump would make an appearance or two at this year’s festival. Pozdorovkin’s “Our New President” provides a narrative of the 2016 election from the perspective of Russian propaganda, assembled entirely from clips and content and “outlandish stories” taken from the Russian media.
Pozdorovkin is no newcomer to the world of propaganda, having produced a dissertation on the subject on his way to a Harvard Ph.D., and he’s interested to see the audience reaction to his “out there” film:
“I love the feeling of being dumbfounded by something,” he said, “and then having to essentially recollect all of yourself and engage in a new way.”
The reaction to “Death of Stalin” has already been memorable for its director. At the Q&A, Iannucci shared the story of a Russian man who approached him after a previous showing and dryly declared in a slow, heavy accent, “you have made Stalin funny … what other tragedies are you going to turn into comedy?”
“He loved the film!” says Iannucci.
There’s a famous quote from Steve Allen that suggests tragedy plus time equals comedy. Whether that’s what this particular audience member had in mind, it’s clear a lot of directors think laughter is the best medicine for our political ills.
If you go …
What: "Our New President"
When: Thursday, Jan. 25, 9:30 p.m. (Ray, Park City) and Friday, Jan. 26, 3 p.m. (Temple, Park City)
Where: Ray Theatre, 1768 Park Ave., Park City, and Temple Theatre, 3700 N. Brookside Ct., Park City
How much: $20 for eWaitlist tickets
What: "The Death of Stalin"
When: Saturday, Jan. 27, 11:30 p.m.
Where: Prospector Square Theatre, 2200 Sidewinder Drive, Park City
How much: $20 for eWaitlist tickets