“The Death of Stalin” hits a bullseye

Watching “The Death of Stalin” is quite enjoyable. Characters trying not to be assassinated, scheming to get the upper hand on their peers, trying to profess the most love for a malevolent dictator that no one liked. But as soon as the film ends, you realize that the story lacks staying power and nothing really new was presented.

Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has the Soviet Union in the throes of his dictatorship. Everyone is terrified of him. People are routinely rounded up and executed. His cabinet do their best to stay in his good graces, but when Stalin keels over from a brain hemorrhage, the entire empire is up for grabs. Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) all try to outwit each other in a game of cat and mouse to change the Soviet Union and usurp power and control for themselves to hilarious effect in this new power vacuum.

The film does a great job of creating jokes at the Soviet system’s expense. The lengths to stay alive and seem devoted to Stalin are extreme (and mirror our current times and fascist-leaning “leader”). And there are quite a few laughs (mostly quips) from the family dynamic of a bunch of wayward sons losing their patriarch whom none of them really liked. It’s an interesting story and a good filter of history.

It is a bit strange to see non-Russians playing such important Russian characters (Steve Buscemi looks absolutely nothing like Khurschev), but that is forgivable.

The biggest problem is that the film does not present anything new. For anyone remotely informed about Soviet history, the fact that the Communists routinely executed their citizens and must have pledged loyalty to the one in charge is not ground breaking information. The film doesn’t have much to say about the Soviets than is already known. And the ending, where such an opportunity is given to present a moral argument or show characters change, is just more of the same.

Perhaps if the film wanted to tie into current tyrants more or make a point about how power always corrupts or show how squabbles result in the doom of everyone, the film would have more resonance, but the movie just sort of ends with no character change or revelation. It’s a bit disappointing for so rich a tale otherwise.

Nevertheless, “The Death of Stalin” offers some funny moments and some commentary on historical inaccuracies. It’s a fun watch.


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