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Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

the-death-of-stalin-posterThis is a film the Russian government doesn’t want you to see. Literally.

Banned by Putin’s government and labelled as “extremist” and “propaganda,” really this is little more than a continuation of director Armando Iannucci‘s continued skewering of government apparatchiks set against the backdrop of Soviet Russia. If you loved his previous work (In the Loop, The Thick of It, and Veep), this is more of that same brand of humor– all it’s missing is Peter Capaldi swearing very loudly.

Instead, you have an all-star cast that includes Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgi Malenkov, and Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov. Simon Russell Beale also plays the head of the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) and Jason Isaacs tries to steal the movie when he shows up halfway through as Zhukov, head of the Red Army. And if you know those names and institutions and who they are, you will probably also love this movie. (Yes! That Russian Studies degree finally pays off!)

Based on a comic book of the same name (which we reviewed here), it’s the same sort of bureaucratic pissing contest between insecure men which Iannucci has made a career out of skewering. The basic tension is over succession following Stalin’s (spoiler alert!) eponymous passing. At the height of Stalin’s terror and paranoia, the various apparatchiks go about plotting against one another. . .  and wackiness ensues.

A darkly hilarious early scene involves an ailing Stalin unconscious on the floor, and he has soiled himself. The Soviet leadership gathers in the room and must decide by committee vote what to do. All of the good doctors have been sent to the gulags. So do we call a bad doctor? What if Stalin recovers and blames us for calling a bad doctor? And when they finally go to pick him up to take him to a bed, no one wants to kneel in the spot where Stalin peed. That’s basically the movie– and also lots of people being shot in the head for treason.

Death of Stalin US posterThe biggest problem in the film is its failure in its lack of representation. Two women have very minor roles in this, and it in no way approaches passing Bechdel or any other test. This seems to be something people noticed about the film, as the US poster released features Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter. But she is barely in the film. It is also as white as a Leningrad blizzard.

If I’m going to call out films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour for choosing to tell stories only about and involving white men, I feel the need for consistency to do so here as well. Yes, yes, yes, historical accuracy and all that, but any time you choose to tell a story only involving white men — even if it viciously satirizes them as this film does — you have to ask why we chose to make this movie and not something else.

Despite that problem, it’s still a really funny movie and something that is incredibly enjoyable– and disturbing. If any of this sounds interesting to you, you’re going to love this film and its dark humor. If not, well, there’s always Tomb Raider, A Wrinkle in Time, and Black Panther out there if you want to see an adaptation that’s a little lighter. The Death of Stalin opens in limited release March 16, expanding March 23.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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