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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)

* * * 1/2

Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi

I'm sure the real story was even more absurd. All the pieces are there, after all: a brutal tyrant who is ultimately undone by his own short-sighted desire to protect his power by destabilizing everyone around him; the political cronies who are left jockeying for power, stabbing each other in the back and trying to think out their next moves, taking a few gambles on how circumstances are going to shake out; a citizenry terrorized by the whims of those in charge, making the difference between life and death as arbitrary as possible; a son who is desperately trying to hide the fact that the national hockey team has been killed on his watch and that he has replaced the players in the hope that no one will notice. Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin is comedy that's about as black as it gets and if it plays a little fast and loose with real history, well, I have to assume that that's because truth is stranger than fiction and that it would seem even less believable if it were all true.

The year is 1953. Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has held the Soviet Union under his thumb for 30 years, maintaining his power by instilling fear and anxiety in people at every echelon of society. Although the film's primary focus in on Stalin's political inner circle - Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehorse), Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) - director Armando Iannucci makes a point of showing what a destabilizing experience it can be for the ordinary people living under a dictatorship. One moment people are being rounded up in the middle of the night for no particular reason on the orders of one man, the next day they're being released for no particular reason on the orders of another man; one minute you're doing your job, the next you're being taken to your execution because your boss has died and the new boss wants to start with a "clean slate;" people are lined up to be executed and suddenly told that they're no longer on the list for such treatment - after half the line has already been shot. To live in a world with so little rhyme or reason, where there's no consistency with respect to what you can do to ensure that you aren't doing something that the government will take issue with, would be its own form of torture.

The Death of Stalin is a comedy, and it's one that finds humor in the grasping desperation of these men who operate at varying levels of evil, but it never loses sight of the fact that they are working to maintain a malevolent and oppressive system. The innocents who will be collateral damage are always in the background when they aren't directly in the foreground - the women singled out by Beria for rape, the people who have the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and in sight of too much that must be kept secret - and though it may inspire you to laugh at the absurdity of various situations, the film ultimately takes no real joy in the machinations of these men or in their moments of triumph. There's a degree of poetic justice in Stalin's death, in that he may have lived were it not for the fact that he had had all of the best doctors liquidated, but that's tempered by the corruption of his inner circle, who know that there isn't a doctor left who is good enough to save him and force a group of lesser doctors to treat Stalin so that when Stalin dies, they can simply blame (and then kill) the doctors. Similarly, there's a degree to which one may feel that Beria has earned his fate after all that he has done, and yet there's no pleasure to be had in the "justice" meted out by a kangaroo court full of men who endorsed or accepted his actions while it was politically convenient. There's too much blood everywhere for any turnabout to actually feel like a victory.

If The Death of Stalin isn't entirely historically accurate - although some of its wilder elements are true: Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) really did try to hide the fact that the hockey team had been killed in a plane crash by hastily replacing the players (whether he actually coached them by screaming "Play better!" is unclear), Molotov really did remain loyal to Stalin even after his beloved wife was sent away to a labor camp and Beria really did release her from imprisonment following Stalin's death (and she, too, really did remain loyal to Stalin even after all she had endured), the inner circle really did wait an inordinate amount of time before calling a doctor to look at the incapacitated but not yet dead Stalin and Stalin's personal physician really was unavailable (due to being tortured) because of Stalin's paranoia - it should be forgiven for it since it's aim is really to capture the chaos that will exist alongside a power vacuum before it gets filled, and it does that splendidly. The Death of Stalin is sort of like Game of Thrones if every character was Littlefinger, but only two of them were actually any good at it.

The Death of Stalin is a very good movie generally, and an excellent comedy specifically. It's sharply written and directed and so full of fantastic performances that it's difficult to set one above the rest. One minute Michael Palin will crack you up as Molotov verbally swings back and forth during a committee meeting, causing the other members to raise and lower and raise and lower their hands while trying to anticipate whether or not they should be agreeing with the motion in question, the next Jeffrey Tambor's weak-willed and vain Malenkov will take hold of a scene through his attempts to present as the man now in charge even as he withers in the face of the smallest challenge. As sinister and depraved as his character is, Simon Russell Beale is sublime as Beria, a man whose capacity for glee rises in direct proportion to how evil his next action will be. Ultimately, though, you probably have to give it to Buscemi as the frustrated, ambitious Khrushchev, who believes that he's the only man truly suitable to be in charge but has to find a way to get rid of Beria and Malenkov to get there. The Death of Stalin is a singular achievement, a film which delicately and very precisely balances itself between comedy and horror, making you laugh even as it sends a chill down your spine.

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