Review Date: 3/13/2018
Rating: 4/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
A surprisingly honest narrative of the events surrounding the demise of one of history's most notorious dictators, The Death of Stalin is both surprisingly funny and surprisingly dark.
When I first saw the trailers for The Death of Stalin I was instantly hooked. Boasting a surprisingly talented cast, the film looked to be a satirical dark comedy from some of the same team that worked on Veep. And so, it was with great excitement that I went to watch what I assumed would be a comedy. And true to form, the film was funny. Like, really, truly funny. But it also has a serious side to it that I didn't expect.
I'm not sure why I was surprised that a film about one of the deadliest regimes in history would be so dark, but it came as a shock. The callous, almost offhanded way in which vast numbers of people died in the film shocked me. Of course I knew all about Stalin's death lists and the bloody swath he cut through Soviet Russia, but this is supposed to be about after Stalin, right? Well let this be a reminder to us that coups are bloody, dangerous affairs. The power vacuum left behind after the great dictator's passing was chock full of murders of both the upper and lower echelons of society.
And this tonal duality is both the film's great strength and its great weakness. On the surface, it is exactly as billed - a silly farce bordering on slapstick at times. The actors, of whom there are too many to give a proper accounting here, all do a fantastic job with the film's lighter moments. But the undercurrents of eminently dark despair that pervade the film cut across in a way that is at times jarring. Watching Steve Buscemi's Nikita Khruschev somberly pivot around Stalin's coffin to scheme and plot while maintaining a modicum of decorum is a hilarious moment only to be followed almost immediately be the almost causal mention of the military killing 1,500 people trying to enter Moscow to pay their respects to their departed dictator. Humor and darkness walk hand in hand in the film.
Ultimately, the film is a triumph, but it falls short of greatness. The acting, writing and plot are all fantastic, and I really do appreciate any film that tries to stay true to the time and place it inhabits, but the violent (literally) shifts in tone made it difficult to stay in the narrative at times. I found myself itching to pull out my phone to look up things on wikipedia in order to sort out what was historically accurate and what was embellished. Though I restrained myself, it came only at great effort, and at the end of a day I watch movies to be distracted. Keeping me in the moment is a filmmaker's number one job, and director Armando Iannucci failed at that.
Still, I find myself compelled to highly recommend this film to anyone interested in this intriguing period in history. The early Soviet Union was a time of great contradictions, and the film manages to present this in a way that is a few ticks more hilarious than Animal Farm, but remains no less insightful or itelligent. Go see it for sure, but don't say I didn't warn you.