02 April 2018

First Impressions: The Death of Stalin

I am not the biggest Armando Iannucci fan simply in the sense that I just haven't seen that much of his work. It pretty much boils down to Alan Partridge, In the Loop (2009), and VEEP, of which I'm weirdly most into Partridge. Still, the dude has a knack for political satire (clearly), and has made a career out of twisty, rapid-fire jokes, and unabashed vitriol. He brings all this to The Death of Stalin (2018), which becomes one of those films that I watched on a whim, thought might be good, and ended up being one of my favourite flicks of the year so far.

Uh-Oh Spaghetti-Os!
This is interesting subject matter to mine for comedy, but it's not really as dark as it could have been. It ends up being an exercise in madcap ridiculousness, power-mongering, double-crossing, and a carefully executed escalation of stakes until everything pops. It's over the top and amazing. For those not in the know, the film centers around the well, death of Joe Stalin in 1953 and the chaos of the ensuing power struggle among his top aides, members of the politburo, and immediate family. There is no attempt made at delivering Russian accents or even consistent British accents. There is also not even really an attempt at casting actors who resemble the historical characters they're playing. Somehow this gets in the way of nothing and only serves to concentrate the film on the performances, trusting the actors naturally shine.

They do and it's fantastic. Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev somewhere between a good-hearted 90s Buscemi weasel and the dangerous Nucky Boardwalk Empire Buscemi. Jeffrey Tambor is the heir apparent, Malenkov, a spineless loaf. Michael Palin comes out of no where as a strict defender of the Old Guard. Jason Isaacs is a supreme and undaunted Commander of the Red Army. Perhaps the best performance of all, though is Simon Russell Beale as the head of Stalin's secret police tasked with hunting down and executing anyone found on a certain list. He's a deplorable awful man but it's also clear that they all are. They're all just competing for power and approval working under fear that they could be crossed and murdered at any moment.

That's really just the tip of this cast. There are an army of sycophants that all have little moments to shine as well as bitter pianist Olga Kurylenko whose letter to the Chairman might have caused the stroke that led to his death. There is an unending array of little moments from Paddy Considine's put upon concerto director in a whirlwind opening scene to the breathtaking incompetency of Rupert Friend as Stalin's son. Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin's more levelheaded daughter with a series of more subtle jokes as each of the buffoons running the Soviet Union vies for her favor.

To really get into this film is to understand that everything is a joke - in the audience it seemed like people were occasionally leaning into the seriousness of the proceedings, but almost every moment is undercut with some blatant incompetency, ham-fisted obviously selfish act, or otherwise insane premise. The film has gotten flack in much of the former Soviet Union, but to be honest, the parallels to modern American politics are more blatant. Beale's Lavrentiy Beria bears at least a physical resemblance to Dick Cheney for sure, and could easily be transposed into a Steve Bannon-type figure. It's easy to picture Trump as Stalin, with his array of easily disposed, fearful quisling cabinet and staff members all battling for approval and power. Not a single one of them cares about the Russian people, it's instead an adherence to Soviet ideology, the demagogue of Stalin, and most of all, saving their own skin.

As with most funerals, white is the color of choice.
The Death of Stalin weaves this intricate political gamesmanship while remaining really funny. It's definitely in that VEEP mode where no character likes each other and doesn't particularly even try to hide that fact. Everyone is too caught up in his own game to worry much about anyone else until the pot boils over and breaks. There's yelling, dominating, cowering, all fruitless action until Khrushchev emerges as the master tactician. That's hopefully not a spoiler, it's...you know, like actual history. The fun part is watching all the madness unfold and seeing how we get there, and as the epilogue implies, Khrushchev was only good until Leonid Brezhnev usurped him.

It's early in the year and there's a lot more film to go - we haven't even gotten into the Summer Blockbuster season or the Fall Awards season yet (who am I kidding, those seasons suck), but I'm digging this one a lot for now. It's refreshing, vibrant, silly, serious, and contemplative. Go see it.

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