****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT.
The Death of Stalin, written and directed by Armando Iannucci, is a dark comedy about the power struggle in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Josef Stalin's death. The film boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Michale Palin and Jason Isaacs.
2018 has thus far been a less than stellar year for cinema. Granted, it is only March and prior to my most recent jaunt to the theatre I had only seen three other films, Black Panther, Red Sparrow and Annihilation, all of which were entirely underwhelming. But ever the optimist, I picked myself up by the bootstraps of my disappointment and made the journey to the local art house to try and break out of the rut of banality that had been the hallmark of my recent trips to the cineplex.
Thankfully, The Death of Stalin was just what the doctor ordered as it was a powerful antidote to my bout of cinema blues. The Death of Stalin is a comedically taut, deliciously funny and masterfully paced film riddled with exquisite performances from an impeccable cast.
I knew nothing about The Death of Stalin prior to seeing it, except that I assumed that it was a comedy about the death of Stalin…and unlike that great cinematic fraud The Never Ending Story, The Death of Stalin is indeed a case of honesty in advertising. After seeing the film I read a little bit about the director, Armando Iannucci, and discovered that he is the creator of the HBO series Veep, which makes sense because The Death of Stalin is sort of like a super-dark version of Veep set in Stalin's Soviet Union. If you like Veep, you will enjoy The Death of Stalin.
The cast of The Death of Stalin is fantastic across the board, but Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi are particularly good. Beale, who plays Beria, the Head of State Security, is a British actor whom I had the great fortune to see masterfully play Iago at the Royal National Theatre twenty years ago during my London days. Beale is a meticulous chameleon of an actor who, much like his equally gifted Shakespearean peer Mark Rylance, has been a master of the London stage for the majority of his career. I hope Beale gets the same level of recognition from a wider audience that Rylance has in his later career, as he is most deserving. Beale's Beria is a study in paranoid entitlement, bemused viciousness and the banality of evil that even at its most heightened never rings false.
Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Kruschev with his usual humorous flair and delivers an phenomenal performance. Alongside the comedy of Buscemi's Kruschev is a palpably frenetic desperation to save himself, and Russia, from falling out of the frying pan of Stalin and into the fire of some other brutal tyrant. Buscemi wraps Kruschev in a cloak of bitter cynicism that hides a rabidly patriotic soul.
The supporting cast all give specific and technically precise performances filled with masterful comedic timing that they are an absolute joy to behold.
Jeffrey Tambor, fresh off the abysmal atrocity that is/was Transparent, which was easily the worst and most repugnant television show I have seen, does a nuanced and hysterical turn as Malenkov, a member of Stalin's inner circle. Tambor is at his most insecure best as Malenkov, who is living proof that Stalin wanted to surround himself with only those considerably weaker than himself.
Andrea Riseborough is terrific as Stalin's daughter Svetlana who must navigate life without her powerful father, as warring factions try to use her as a pawn in their chess match. Svetlana is not as weak and delicate as she pretends to be, but she isn't nearly as strong and resilient as she thinks she is. Riseborough has the least flashy of all of the roles in the film but her comedic subtlety and dramatic chops make her Svetlana a vital part of the film's artistic success.
Rupert Friend plays Stalin's drunken, hockey-team losing son Vasily with aplomb. Friend nearly steals the entire show with his volcanic drunken tirades that seem to have no end and no discernible beginning.
Jason Isaacs masterfully plays famed Soviet General Zhukov. Isaacs' Zhukov is a pitbull in a parade uniform and he has little time, and less tolerance for the political machinations of the backstabbing politburo. Isaacs brings a force and energy to the film that elevates the comedy and the drama to an even higher level.
The rest of the cast, including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko and Adrian McLoughlin all do stupendous and seamless work that keep the film right on track.
An interesting note regarding the acting is that the entire cast never uses a "Russian" accent. Nor do they all use a coordinated "British" accent which some films use to signify a foreign language without alienating American audiences. Instead in The Death of Stalin all of the actors speak in their disparate native tongues, accents included. This is a very wise choice since comedy, and this type of specific verbal comedy in particular, is difficult enough in an actor's first language, adding any accent and most especially a Russian one, would make it nearly impossible. What is so interesting about this languid language/accent approach is that it comes across as so coherent, effortless and comedically harmonious as to be unnoticeable.
Director Iannucci plays to his comedy strengths in The Death Of Stalin even more so than he does in his stellar HBO show Veep. Veep is a heightened comedy that refuses to acknowledge any connection to a real world or actual human behavior. In The Death of Stalin on the other hand, Iannucci has made a very funny comedy that is propelled by genuine human behavior. The Death of Stalin, as absurd as it can be, is still based on a solid realism despite its being so funny.
A very effective tactic by Iannucci is how he deftly handles the rather glaring issue of the brutality of Stalin's Great Terror by only giving the audience the perspective of those in Stalin's inner circle. Viewers are unconsciously connected to the protagonists like Beria and Kruschev in the inner circle and Iannucci never explicitly shows the violence and savagery for which these men are responsible. It isn't until we are fully on board and rooting for the good guys to win that we see what the good guys (and we) are capable of, and it isn't a pretty sight.
It is impossible to watch The Death of Stalin and not relate it to the politics of our day. For instance, the backstabbing paranoia and positioning of Stalin's inner circle before and after his death certainly resembles the daily drama emanating from the Trump White House. The Trump purges of cabinet members is less bloody than Stalin's, but the impulse behind them is the same. Trump instinctually surrounds himself with people that are intellectually, and even physically, smaller than he is because, like Stalin he wants to be The Big Man. Beria, Kruschev, Malenkov and the rest of Stalin's ass kissing brigade have counterparts right here at home in Trump's cabinet, and could easily pass as Bannon, McMaster and The Mooch.
Even Stalin's kids are reminiscent of the Trump children. Svetlana, the doe-eyed beauty trying to manipulate her "royal" standing for all it is worth, is Ivanka plain and simple. And speaking of simple, Stalin's son Vasily is as if Don Jr. and Eric Trump were morphed together into one drunken ball of entitled moronity.
The Death of Stalin is also relevant in the context of the headlines of today due to the plethora of anti-"Russia" news. Russia is currently the enemy du jour and is blamed for everything that could, did or will go wrong in the world. The Death of Stalin is, like the recent Red Sparrow, a rather shameless piece of anti-Russian reinforcement propaganda meant to buttress people's preconceived negative feelings about those conniving and brutal Russians.
I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of The Death of Stalin, but the fact that Stalin and Russia were the subject of a film at all is indicative of the wave of anti-Russian resentment and hysteria fomented by a calculated Russo-phobic propaganda campaign. For instance, would this film have been made if it were about the machinations behind the scenes when Ariel Sharon was in a coma? Or about when FDR died? or Mao? or JFK? No…of course not. American audiences have been primed to accept that Russians are a particularly loathsome and untrustworthy bunch, so it is acceptable to laugh at them and highlight the worst of them when they are at their most despicable.
That is why The Death of Stalin is in theaters now, because it buttresses and reinforces the anti-Russian madness by reminding people that Russia, at its core, is only Stalin's Soviet Union during the Great Terror, and nothing else. Nuance need not apply when it comes to the Russia of today, just tune in to MSNBC or read the Washington Post for proof of that.
You may be asking what difference does it make if there is anti-Russian propaganda? Well, the biggest issue is that it makes Americans gullible to any anti-Russian story thrown out there. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK? Must be Russia, and no proof or evidence is needed to back up that claim. Same with the claims of Russian "hacking" of our elections, voting machines and even our power grids…all unsubstantiated but accepted as Gospel Truth by the opinion shapers in the establishment media. Unproven claims that Russia started a war by invading Ukraine, shot down MH17 and rigged elections in Crimea are treated the same way.
The propaganda campaign against Russia is not just dangerous because people are primed to believe any outrageous claim against that country, but because of where that belief will inevitably lead…a catastrophic war. The biggest problem with the anti-Russian hysteria and hatred that has become mainstream here in America, is that it is lead by the people who would usually be anti-war, liberals and Democrats. With incessant rhetoric being spouted by liberals about how Russia has "attacked America" or "committed an act of war", there will be no speed bumps on the road from a cold war with Russia to a hot one…and that will not end well for anyone.
The real lesson of The Death of Stalin is the corrupting influence of authoritarianism on the soul. With authoritarianism on the rise across the globe and in our collective consciousness, The Death of Stalin is now compulsory viewing. The important thing to remember is that authoritarianism isn't just on the rise in the form of Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Xi…but in the hearts and minds of regular people…even those who may share your ideological beliefs. For instance, there has been a spate of people silenced or exiled for daring to question Democratic or liberal orthodoxy. I know this because I am one of them. I was exiled by numerous friends who did not like what I wrote about the last election, and instead of talking to me about it, or God forbid debating it, they exiled me…and my family…from their circle. This is metaphorically just like Stalin's Great Terror where he eliminated those who dare think for themselves or speak truth to power.
The great danger of our time is not so much Trump, who is a bumbling buffoon of a man and an even worse president, but rather our authoritarian response to him. #TheResistance has proven itself to be a hypocritical outlet for the authoritarian impulses of establishment Democrats. Watch these alleged liberals discard history down the memory hole and contort themselves in all sorts of illogical ways in order to embrace the intelligence community (CIA, NSA, John Brennan, Michael Hayden and John Clapper) and the FBI (and James Comey, Robert Mueller and Andrew McCabe) all in the hopes of destroying Trump and regaining power. With authoritarians, Truth and actual history have no meaning in the quest for power and revenge, and so it has become with establishment Democrats and certain sections of the left. If you can watch The Death of Stalin through the prism of liberal authoritarianism, it will be a very enlightening experience indeed, especially if you're a liberal who likes to banish people with opinions that challenge your own.
In conclusion, even though The Death of Stalin is yet another piece of anti-Russian propaganda, it is a finely-crafted, exquisitely made piece of propaganda, and that is to the credit of its remarkable cast and director Armando Iannucci. I recommend you put in the effort to see The Death of Stalin in the theatre as it will most assuredly entertain you as it did me. And if you are able to look past the surface of the film and see it not just as another Russo-phobic hit piece, but as a clarion call against all forms of authoritarianism…especially the authoritarianism that lives inside your own heart…and mine, then it might just make you more than laugh, it might even make you think…and cry in despair.