July 4, 2018 – I was looking forward to seeing this political satire from the writer-director of “In the Loop” (2009) and it doesn't disappoint. While most of the violence happens off-screen in “In the Loop” there is a good deal of violence on-screen in this one, which gives it a more serious, ominous tone, but it still has many funny scenes. The comedy, and the human observation, in “The Death of Stalin” is the same as in the earlier film.
The story begins, and much of it is based on fact, in 1953, just hours before the death of Joseph Stalin (played by Adrian McLoughlin) he is seen casually signing papers ordering the execution of dozens of people. Even more ominous is the fear of Stalin evident in Soviet people, such as an orchestra ordered to repeat a live broadcast performance immediately because Stalin himself had just requested a recording of it while it was being aired. People are rounded up to fill out the audience, and ordered to applaud at appropriate times.
The maneuvering for political power begins among the members of the Politburo as soon as Stalin is stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage, and kicks into high gear when he dies soon after that. This bumbling, deadly scramble for power is where most of the deadly serious comedy comes from in this film. Since Stalin's death is so sudden, the members of the Central Committee don't know what to do, except for Lavrentiy Beria (played by Simon Russell Beale of “King Lear”). Beria, head of the secret police, quickly springs into action, but he overplays his hand, causing others in the Politburo to view him as a threat.
The key players in this Politburo power struggle include Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buschemi of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”) Georgy Malenkov (played by Jeffrey Tambor of “The Accountant”) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin of “A Fish Called Wanda”). Another key player is Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs of the “Harry Potter” movies) a member of the Politburo who is also high in the ranks of the Red Army.
Wile Malenkov assumes the mantle of Soviet Premier upon Stalin's death, he proves a weak leader, and the real power struggle arises between Beria and Khrushchev. While Nikita Khrushchev opens the film as a jokester who amuses Stalin, he later shows himself to be a ruthless, cunning, manipulative power broker. He sees that Beria is a threat to himself and the rest of the Politburo, and he organizes opposition to Beria and accumulates powerful allies, including Zhukov and Molotov.
In the mad scramble for power there are shifting alliances. Malenkov and Molotov in particular seem to sway with the political winds, constantly changing policy positions. There is a funny scene at a Central Committee meeting where Molotov gives a rambling speech about a key decision in which he seems to come down firmly on both sides of the question, confusing everyone at the meeting as his argument veers suddenly from one side of the question to the other and back again. Another thing that makes this funny is Molotov's resemblance to “Floyd the Barber” a character on the old Andy Griffith TV series set in the small town of Mayberry (where barber Floyd Lawson was played by Howard Terbell McNear).
This dark comedy includes scenes of kidnapping, torture, murder, and a kind of autopsy scene where Stalin's brain is removed from his skull, yet it remains, essentially a comedy. Comedy is serious business. The similarity between President Donald Trump's administration and that of Premier Malenkov's is obvious enough that there have been numerous comparisons made about this in other reviews of this film.
This is a funny movie, but what really sticks with me is the mundane nature of terror, as the leaders of the Soviet Union casually order the murder of innocent people. The naked quest for unbridled power is awful. This film is a strong reminder of the ruthless extremes people embrace to obtain and retain power. This film rates a B.
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