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Film Review

The Death of Stalin (2017)

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Running time: 1h 47min
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Fabien Nury (based on the comic books by), Thierry Robin (based on the comic books by), Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin is a very well crafted black comedy/satire about the final days and aftermath of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin’s reign in 1953. The film is based on a comic book, which might be surprising to those who are used to thinking about comic book adaptations in terms of superheroes punching supervillains. The Death of Stalin is a hilarious, yet moving movie about extreme authoritarianism, cult of personality, the lust for power, and the tragic results of it all. This is a film that is exceedingly entertaining, while also providing a (albeit not entirely accurate) history lesson about an important period in history.

Spoiler alert: Stalin dies in this film

The absurdity of absolute, tyrannical, petty authoritarianism encompasses the whole narrative; how everyone must do their utmost to lie so as not to speak an offensive truth and possibly die for it, even if everyone knows how matters truly are; how every whim of The Leader must be obeyed, or there will be hell to pay; how, even after his death, Stalin looms over everything and everyone, despite it inarguably having been a relief for humankind for him to have finally perished; how the scramble to fill the void of the power vacuum is obvious, but yet must not be completely out in the open; how almost everyone is clearly unfit to rule after Stalin’s demise, but wants to do so anyway; and how important it is to keep up appearances despite everything being or going to hell. With the aid of a great script, great actors, and great direction, all of this is made not only tragic and thought-provoking, but also hilarious.

Here lies the great man for everyone to see, after having been cleaned up and made presentable with considerable effort

I enjoy history, and I know some little bits and pieces about it here and there, but I cannot say that I am an expert on the history of USSR or Stalin; therefore, I cannot speak as to the authenticity or the historical accuracy of The Death of Stalin, but I will note that Wikipedia does list some historical inaccuracies. I was not bothered by any of this, and reading about them later, the inaccuracies were fairly minor in my opinion. One of the bigger issues, I think, in films that depict people that really existed, and who some might even still remember, is the accuracy of what these people were really like. How realistic is that, and does it matter all that much in the end? If one is going for true authenticity one might as well make a documentary, and even then the end result can never portray everything just as it was. In any case, The Death of Stalin is artistic entertainment, it is not meant to be taken as a history lesson; even so, it gets most of the facts right and is therefore not on the same level as something like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009), which famously deviates from actual history by a margin as wide as the difference in quality between Pulp Fiction (1994) and Plump Fiction (1997). Both of these approaches to historical accuracy are fine to take, of course, when one does not claim to present everything as it truly was.

In my opinion, there is very little that does not work perfectly or at least very well in The Death of Stalin, but I suppose there are a few things I could mention. The humor is not successful at all times, but humor is largely subjective, and I won’t hold a non-100% success rate in this regard as more than the tiniest of failures. As already stated, there are historical inaccuracies, but that might only matter to history buffs of the extreme kind. A few of the scenes perhaps felt a bit too over the top or trying too hard, but this as well is subjective. Other than these quite minor issues, if they even are issues, I can not think of anything “wrong” with the film. The less something gets wrong the more it gets right, if math tests are to be believed, or some such nonsense. And since I do grade films numerically, I will not edit that crap out.

Some scenes are arguably just slightly too much over the top

The casting is superb, and the acting ranges from good to excellent, with Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev being being the standout. Of course, I could be biased, since I can’t think of a single performance by him that I disliked. Additionally, as an old Monty Python fan, it was especially nice to see Michael Palin again. And I also used to enjoy The Fast Show (1994-2014), so seeing Paul Whitehouse here was enjoyable as well. All in all, while Buscemi shines the brightest, there are no weak links in this lineup. I could easily mention and/or praise everyone else as well, but let us move on.

The cast is fantastic, but I give special credit to Steve Buscemi (center)

The film is spoken in English, and there is no attempt at trying to make the dialogue sound Russian with some stupid accents. The end result works great in my opinion. I suppose I would not have been overly bothered if they had done the fake accents, as they usually do, since I am not a native speaker of English, and can almost never tell if someone is doing a bad accent – the one very notable exception being the absolutely horrid performance by Keanu Reeves in the otherwise good Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). I would imagine it being better for the actors this way, not having to concentrate on doing (and maintaining) a fake accent in order to appear more authentic somehow, just because that’s how it’s always been done.

It’s almost like everyone gets along just fine

The Death of Stalin was extremely enjoyable for me. I do not know if I will continue to regard it as highly as time goes on, but currently I would say that it might even make my list of favorite films of all time. While I would not recommend it for everyone, as it is quite dark in tone despite being so funny, it is nevertheless remarkably enjoyable for being about such a dark moment in history.

Rating: 9.5 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 0

Would I want to rewatch this film? Yes

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