The Death of Stalin (****): A demo of socialists

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The Death of Stalin – 2017

Director Armando Iannucci
Screenplay Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows based on the book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Starring  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor

I have little desire to learn the inner workings of failed experiments. Soviet Russia and Kurt Cobain top the list of undesirable ways to spend one’s time pondering. Thankfully I have Armando Iannucci to decipher the former into bite sized chunks of comedic horror.

The Death of Stalin covers just that time period when Premier murderer Joseph Stalin finally died and the Politburo scrambled to take his place whilst simultaneously covering their collective asses.

Starting off with a concert being recreated at the threat of death, we get the idea that no one in Soviet Russia is really there for their own enjoyment or fulfillment. Meanwhile, the Stalin’s inner circle is gathered to just drink and avoid saying the wrong thing to the leader. One person, Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria is comfortable with this situation as it stands. For decades, he’s been torturing, murdering and raping under the shadow of Stalin. Things show no sign of slowing down.

Then it happens.

Immediately we see the group scramble together and apart, looking to press the advantage with whoever can give it to them.  From what appears, history has chosen to point out the wrongs of the ones who lose.

When one thinks of the ideal portrayer of murderous opportunist, Steve Buscemi has to be in at least the top five. One thing I never could picture, though, is Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, heading down to the United Nations, pounding on the desk and announcing “We will bury you!” to the U.S. in 1960. Somehow, Iannucci gets around this by allowing Buscemi to just play within his character and figuring it will all sort itself out.

There are several other memorable performances here, including Isaacs as the real power behind the throne, being that his General Georgy Zhukov has the most mobile force behind him.

The collateral damage is every common citizen who suffers the wrath of their moves and counter moves. Their can be no illusion that the power of the Soviet Union is rotten from the time they kill Czar Nicholas through today. Like all socialist enterprises, they feed off of the will of the people to work more and receive less. This is a time when they have more resources to waste, and waste them, they  do.

The comedy is in the fact that the citizens understand that the idiots who control the guns have little idea what they are doing, in the grand scheme of things. They are angling for whatever helps them survive the day, just like anyone else.

A good example of this occurs early on, when we see a son turn his father over to the NKVD for a randomly decided crime. Just before his father is put to death, a reversal of fortune occurs through political scheming. For no reason other than this, he is released and goes back to his family. He exchanges no words with his son. They both know the score.

I understood the humor of this film, but I can’t say I remember laughing. I barely remember smirking. Somehow Tambor’s ineffectuality is funnier when people won’t be put to death because of it.

Still, I can’t deny the skill with which this story is constructed, in its typically abbreviated cinematic version. Months turn to days and trials turn to verdicts.

Isaacs and Buscemi give great performances, but no one can touch the authority with which Beale portrays the sinister Beria. His movements bespeak evil in the shadows, but his face makes him seem quite congenial.

That this movie has been banned in Russia should give some indication how things go currently there for the time being. Everything is fine. Just go about your business until they tell you to get in the back of the wagon.

Hopefully the film gives the movement Democratic Socialism some amount of pause here in the U.S.. The idea, from what I am told, has never reached its full potential. Some people want to keep giving it a shot to see if they can help perfect the experiment. It’s that few hundred million dead and all the names and pictures redacted from history that keeps me from wanting to try. Maybe watching this film will start these enthusiasts down the road towards thinking.

(**** out of *****)

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