The Death of Stalin

As I lurked in the movie theater lobby while the trailers played (it's my goal to avoid trailers and reviews before seeing a movie) it occurred to me that I could read a little about Joseph Stalin and USSR history on my phone, just before the movie, but the idea of that kind of last minute “catching up” struck me as pathetic. I've had half a century to read some world history and managed to avoid it. I'm not proud of my ignorance—I'm not proud of anything—but I'm maybe kind of not beating myself up about being able to admit my shortcomings. So anyway, I figured, it's a movie, it will probably spoon-feed me the history part, which was to some degree true, but it was pretty fast and furious, the jokes just kept coming, and I realized I'd probably have gotten a lot more out of the movie by having a sound historical background and being more familiar with these characters who were involved in a struggle for power after Stalin's sudden death put the government in chaos.

I'm guessing that the comic, sometimes even slapstick, version of this significant moment in Soviet history is not too close to anyone's memory, who were there, though I suppose the people who survived Stalin's long reign of terror were somewhat biased, anyway, by skewed information—I mean, no different than any history, just more so, by the historical subject's vigorous program to rewrite history. But this probably isn't the movie you show in high school history class on substitute teacher day (do they still do that in high school?). I heard that the movie was banned in Russia, and you can't really blame them—I'm all for free speech, but there're some movies I'd like to ban here if they ever put me in charge (“minister of culture”). Of course, in this country, there is no point to banning a movie when you can just marginalize it. Put it on YouTube, free and accessible to everyone, and after about five minutes no one really cares.

I know I don't know what I'm talking about, but worse, I can't even trust what I've just seen. 24 hours after seeing this movie, I had the impression, on one hand, that the entire thing was in Russian and subtitled, and on the other hand that everyone was speaking in a kind of Americanized Star Trek Klingon version of a Russian accent. None of which is true, and I think that all the characters spoke in their own voices—more suited for non-stop zingers, one-liners, and crushing put-downs—but somehow—I guess because of the quality of the writing and the performances—I was sold like hotcakes on Saturday morning. I mean, it's nothing like the Biblical epics where one guy sounds like he's from Brooklyn, another from the Bronx, another from London, etc.

I suppose seeing a well researched and scrutinized documentary on this subject would be a more responsible approach to history, but I don't know—after watching that epic Vietnam War documentary on TV last fall, I felt like I was ready to go to sleep for the next ten years. I know that's wimpy of me, and yes, there are people who lived through that on many levels (and ones who didn't survive). But no matter how funny it's presented, or how impressive the artistic achievement, horror is not easy for me to stomach. I'm still trying to get through the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (The Part about the Crimes)—been trying for a couple of years, and good writing just makes horrific depictions more horrific (but I endure, because The Part about Archimboldi sits there waiting like clean sheets in the El Dorado Motel).

When I saw in the credits that this 2017 movie was based on the French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, something in my brain clicked the response, “Oh, that makes sense.” I guess that was what inspired director and co-screenwriter, Armando Iannucci (of whose considerable credits I've seen exactly zero, but whose name I'll pay attention to in the future). I only recognized a handful of actors, but they are all very good, and you get that that Preston Sturges/Coen Brothers feeling of expertly casting and utilizing this seamless parade of character actors who you can marvel at while simultaneously forgetting they're acting. Speaking of the Coen's, it occurred to me that had the wood-chipper in Fargo (1996) been a time machine, Steve Buscemi's character might have slid into a time and place where his Carl act could have found success (though I'm sure Khrushchev and Carl Showalter are day and night, IQ-wise). (But then, Steve Buscemi is one of those guys—if you got a temp job locked in Sam's Club overnight doing inventory and the Steve Buscemi character was your co-worker, you've hit the jackpot in life.)

To sum it up... well, I'm not going to, so screw it. I feel like I could have actually benefited in this case, against my thing against reading anything about a movie before seeing it, and gotten something out of reading about it ahead of time. So you might, too. But God help you if this is the review you've chosen to enhance your moviegoing experience. On the other hand, if you're like me and are baffled at why some horror movies are called comedies, and some comedies are called horror movies (not that both can't be both, and often are), maybe you'll latch onto the very universal side of this movie, which is about fear. Though we know it's the only thing to be feared (itself), that helps very little when you're at the mercy of someone or something with control over your life, making it not good. This movie is a very particular type of humor, then, that might be still there for you, even when you are all out of tears.

Randy Russell 4.10.18