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The Death of Stalin

THE DEATH OF STALIN

4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Armando Iannucci

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Adrian McLoughlin,  Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, violence and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 3/9/18 (limited); 3/16/18 (wider); 3/30/18 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 15, 2018

Director Armando Iannucci opens The Death of Stalin like a typical period piece, with some calming piano music, a concert hall, and a group of attentive audience members. We also notice some armed guards along the sides, but given the title, that's to be expected. Everything changes almost immediately, though, as we enter the recording booth for a state radio station in the back of the hall. A member of the staff receives a phone call, ordering him to call back in 17 minutes. It's an oddly precise number and one that causes near-instant terror. Is he supposed to call back 17 minutes from the time he answered the phone, or should he call back 17 minutes after he hung up?

It seems like a trivial detail, but this is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin in 1953. Trivial details can get a person arrested, exiled, or killed, and as unlikely as it may seem, that constant fear is the foundation of the humor in Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin's screenplay.

The film primarily focuses on Stalin's inner circle of government power, and at least one of them can no longer keep track of which of their comrades are still alive, which have been sent to a gulag, and which have been executed. The implication, of course, is that any of these men (and, as a reminder of the hypocrisy of a system that allegedly championed equality, they are all men) could find themselves detained by armed soldiers, sent to a prison camp in Siberia, or held in a cramped prison cell in Moscow before a gun is put to their head and they're forced to say their final words: "Long live Stalin!"

The joke works, in part, because all of these men likely deserve at least one of those outcomes. They're terrible excuses for human beings, having spent a lifetime in the service of a brutal regime, personally ordering the killing of countless people, and standing by while 170 million people are held in the iron grip of a leader whose only goal is to maintain his power by any means necessary. The film doesn't turn them into fools, which would be easy way to satirize this regime. It allows us to see that they are powerful men, capable of great evil and constantly scheming to climb the ladder of influence within the Soviet Union. Because of those qualities, they end up looking quite foolish.

It's a subtle but, for this material to work, necessary distinction. We can't like any of these men, and the screenwriters have ensured that we don't. We may be able to judge each one on sliding scale of evil, but even then, each of them is still somewhere on a scale of evil.

It doesn't make it easier to laugh at them. In fact, it should make it almost impossible to laugh at them. Iannucci, though, is more concerned with joking about the pure absurdism of this political world, this mindset of complete devotion to one man, and, when that one man is lying unconscious in a puddle of his own urine, the chaotic machinations and cognitive dissonance of people who aspire to replace a man whom they claim to be "irreplaceable."

The rogues' gallery includes Stalin himself (played by Adrian McLoughlin, with a slight Cockney accent and an attitude that instantly makes one think of a gangster), the head of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the head of the Soviet secret police Lavrenti Beria (a great Simon Russell Beale, seeing Beria's nab for power under a guise of being the unlikely "good guy"). The members of the inner circle drink, eat, and drink some more in Stalin's grand mansion, regaling each other with stories of the war (in Khrushchev's case, telling how he threw live grenades at POWs to watch them dance) and passive aggressively mocking each other for their capital-C Comrade's amusement. Also on hand are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin's dunderheaded deputy, and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a long-time friend of the nation's leader who unwittingly has found himself on Stalin's list of enemies.

Everything changes when Stalin—"the old man," as his subordinates call him with the unforced affection reserved for a paternal figure—has a stroke (The guards at his office doors don't do anything when they hear him collapse, figuring it's better not to ask for forgiveness for potentially disturbing the boss). After offering highly theatrical displays of grief for the other men in the room (all while awkwardly trying not to get their suits wet from the puddle that has formed on the carpet around the leader's crotch), the bureaucratic work of figuring out which doctor should be called ("The good ones" are either in prison or dead, since Stalin assumed they were trying to poison him) and how to proceed with a succession plan begins. The conspiring, back-stabbing, and jockeying for favor in the eyes of each other, Stalin's daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), and the public starts, too.

Basically, Khrushchev and Beria begin campaigning against each other within this immediate sphere of politicians, while Malenkov takes over as acting head of the state. There's plenty of leverage here, with Beria having dirt on the party members (as well as control of the secret police, enacting his own lists of people to be executed) and Khrushchev arguing for reforms to the system. Malenkov remains a sycophant, even in his new position of power, essentially giving in to whomever spoke to him last.

The film is ruthless in its dissection of these people, seeing them as flattering pawns under Stalin and as cunning power-grabbers after the leader's death. There's no ideology here, except when it's used as a cheap way to win an argument or as a threat (To go against the party, after all, is treasonous). It's all about power and who can make the better case—even when that case is devoid of any sense of logic. Beria, for example, tries to gain favor with Molotov by releasing his wife from prison on treason charges, leading to a paradox: She deserved to be in prison, because Stalin ordered it, but to call her a traitor is to go against the decision of the party, which Stalin claimed to hold higher than himself.

It's brutally funny, but at times, it's also simply brutal. Iannucci makes a point to show the violence of Stalin's regime and of the power struggle that ensued after his death. There's a lot of bumbling within the inner circle at the center of The Death of Stalin, but the film reminds us that the one thing these people could get right is systematic detention and murder. It's a tremendous balancing act on the filmmakers' part—allowing us to laugh at the mentality that gave rise to this system without making light of its consequences.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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