Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Movie Review: The Death Of Stalin (2018)

The plot: In 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the leader of the Soviet union, has died. As his inner circle tries to deal with the power vacuum, Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and head of the interior ministry Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) begin their plans to become the new leader. However, between those who wish to live up to Stalin's legacy and those who want to replace it with their own, things are about to get chaotic in Russia.

Paddy Considine starts the film off on a very strong note, setting the chaotic slapstick tone of what would come after it while giving a great performance as a radio producer who has to re-do a live performance just so Stalin can have a recording of it. Buscemi is on fire here as Khrushchev, giving his incredibly sharpened dialogue justice while serving as the embodiment of the lesser of all evils within Stalin’s inner circle. Beale gets a lot of juice out of his role as the conniving political manipulator (well, more so than those around him at the very least), depicting vile and quick wit with equal vigour. McLoughlin makes for a nicely memorable performance as the titular dictator, while Rupert Friend as his son is basically the avatar of all things politically paranoid. I swear, I could watch him rant about doctors literally injecting American lies into his father’s brain for the rest of eternity.

Michael Palin does a fine job as another of Stalin’s circle, along with perfect casting of getting one of the Pythons in something this soaked in absurdist anarchy, Jason Isaacs makes for a very welcome presence as the general of the Soviet Army, and Jeffrey Tambor… ugh. Okay, for the record, his presence in this film is probably the only thing I would actively hold against it, as I honestly wouldn’t have minded if they pulled an All The Money In The World routine with his performance (might have even fit into the narrative, considering Stalin’s history with photo doctoring). However, as the die-hard servant of Stalin’s memory and as another piece of the collective repartee, he still fits the bill quite well.

From his work in the UK on The Thick Of It to his collaborations with Steve Coogan over his famous character Alan Partridge, even his break-out into the U.S. with Veep, the name Armando Iannucci is synonymous with sharp-tongued and astute satire. Thankfully, even on the big screen, that holds true as this is easily one of the most immediately-quotable comedies I’ve seen in months, if not years. Whether it’s the dialogue, featuring a slew of juicy barbs between political opponents, the visuals, like Khrushchev being in such a hurry to get to the recently-ill Stalin that he just pulls his suit over his pyjamas, or even the background, like the walk-and-talk scenes where you’ll see anything from head shots to people wrapped up in carpets and rolled down the stairs, this shows a level of consistent engagement that is astounding to behold.

I’d say that this makes for a nice refresher from the usual “just talk shit and roll camera” style of comedy, except I think even this film has a direct problem with its competition. When you have a scene where a main character is actively chastising others for over-using jokes and to “get some better fucking material”, it helps that the film attached to it has the brass to follow through. Whatever jokes are made, they aren’t run into the ground nor does the film feel the need to over-explain what makes the jokes funny; like any real comedic writer, Ianucchi and co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows let the work speak for itself and gives the audience enough credit to get it. As someone who has railed against that very style of comedy for a while now, I definitely give a tip of the hat to these guys for that.

Not that this is just wit for the sake of wit. As good as the dialogue is, political satire relies on much more than just memorability and surface-level engagement to be truly effective. It’s a good thing then that Ianucchi is able to match his ability with quips with a real understanding of the mechanics of politics. Specifically, how clogged the inner workings can get, especially in the wake of a major power shift. There’s actually a scene in here that perfectly sums up this film’s approach to the political details, and of course, it’s a scene that is outrageously funny. It involves the main characters all getting in their cars to get out of the driveway… but because all of them are trying to be the first ones to get out, none of them are able to move for a minute or two. That is the essence of this film: People who are so focused on being the first ones to make a move that they end up blocked by everyone else doing the same thing.

The narrative plays around with dramatic irony at times, letting the simultaneous machinations result in scenarios where things happen because the characters are uninformed of what the hell’s going on, but for the most part, it sticks to the people making those moves and how much weaving is involved to make them happen. Whether the people involved are trying to stay true to Stalin’s legacy or push forward to new horizons, they are all still looking to personal interests, allowing whatever death that occurs just roll off of them. I mentioned Buscemi’s Khrushchev as the lesser of all evils, and while he definitely comes across as someone with an actual moral compass (hence the rushing, pyjamas and all, to make sure the leader of his country was okay), he’s still someone who has to do terrible things to get his way. He can’t hold a candle to Beria in terms of sheer vileness, but he still has a lot to answer for… which leads me to the reason that this film was even made in the first place.
Since Iannucci and co. were so courteous to let their work speak for itself, I’m going to have Iannucci speak for himself for a bit here:

This is a film primarily about the need for political compromise, allying one’s self with unsavoury people because of a shared dislike for the “real” enemy. Hell, siding with the lesser of two evils is a phenomenon that most of you reading this will be familiar with, as most elections tend to follow that very pattern. Yeah, they’re not someone I’d sit down with for a light lunch any day soon, but anything is better than letting the other guy win. The duality of most politics, the “us vs. them” mantra, is something of a necessity; most of the time, we have to side with one or the other, as any third-party rarely gets the numbers needed for real change.

However, that same mentality results in us trying to make that compromise as flattering as possible, either to others or even to ourselves. Usually, this comes in the form of downplaying the actual crimes of the side we’re supporting, just to emphasize how much worse the other side is. Look at the Clinton/Trump dichotomy for those who support her: Yeah, Trump is a walking disaster zone, but let’s not forget the war crimes under Hillary’s belt too. That mentality of compromise, in the long run, lets people get away with shit. It’s what results in Hitler being scarcely mentioned in the Germany of today, while Stalin is still treated as the lesser evil in his country of origin… even though, historically, Hitler cribbed quite a few pages out of Stalin’s playbook. With how much political divides of today are resulting in far more fighting than actual progress, this is the kind of satire that not only speaks true to the collective of the time but also the collective of this time.

All in all, this is stone-cold brilliant. The performances are top-notch, the dialogue they’re in service to is incredibly sharp, quick and dead-on-target, the visuals allow for Iannucci to stick with his mockumentary hand-held style while still making it cinema-grade, and the satire within shows sparkling clarity about political discourse in all its ugliness. What makes this even more impressive is that, even when the true grim details of the story are literally pushed into the background, the consistent level of humour here always sticks and never feels out-of-sorts or inappropriate at any given moment. It admits the darkness, but never lets it overtake the light; now that is how you do black comedy.

This ranks higher than I, Tonya and is the new film to beat for 2018. I, Tonya still has a very comfy place in my heart for how unabashedly pissed off it is as a production, both at the audience and at modern cynicism in general, but it still had a couple of dead spots in its run time. No such thing is present in The Death Of Stalin: It starts out on an electrifying note and stays there for its 107 minute duration.

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