A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Death of Stalin is a dark, absurdist comedy based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. It has lots of strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," etc.) and quite a bit of violence related to the time of the Soviet Great Terror. While the violence is rarely graphic, it does include a man being shot point-blank in the head and the aftermath of that execution. Its mass-murderer characters are also guilty of or complicit in rape and torture, though those acts aren't shown on-screen. But really, it's the movie's pervasive tension -- the stress of living in that time -- that's most likely to disturb younger viewers. Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin co-star.
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What's the story?
In THE DEATH OF STALIN, it's 1953 in Moscow: the era of state-mandated paranoia and violence now called the Great Terror by historians. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin suffers a stroke, his lieutenants scramble to take power and eliminate rivals. Among those on the rollercoaster of scheming: Minister for Agriculture Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi), designated successor Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and feared Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the secret police. In a blitz of shifting loyalties and machinations -- not to mention the arrival of Stalin's children (Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend) and the formidable leader of the army (Jason Isaacs) -- the winners and losers will be determined behind the scenes as the Soviet people gather to pay their last respects.
Is it any good?
This is a frequently amazing, head-spinning, tragic farce that somehow manages to balance violent, stressful paranoia with absurd comedy. The laughs never come cheaply; the film stays firmly planted in that terrifying era in which the wrong word in the wrong ear could lead to an entire family's disappearance. That this atmosphere of terror isn't given short shrift drastically raises The Death of Stalin's stakes above those of most political comedies. Some may know director/co-writer Armando Iannucci from HBO's Veep; others may be familiar with his famed BBC series on British politics, The Thick of It, and its brilliant, Oscar-nominated spin-off film In the Loop. Iannucci found fame by satirizing the petty squabbles and bad behavior that frequently end up shaping public policy. Now imagine all that vicious backroom maneuvering and all of those personality clashes, with the given circumstance that death and erasure are likely consequences for failure. It's as if Veep met 1984 met Game of Thrones. And somehow, amid the horrors of lives destroyed and human beings exploited, The Death of Stalin evokes snickers of recognition and produces laugh-out-loud moments. It's quite a feat. Making the balancing act even more impressive, the writers (adapting the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) frequently achieve a kind of Chekhovian cadence in the dialogue, with its plain-spoken formality and attention to small details ("Who put a lamp on this chair?") and then mix it with the very modern, ripely profane, brutally cutting language for which Iannucci is famous. That the actors don't use Russian accents dispenses with another unnecessary layer of formality.
The cast, which has already earned many honors in England, is letter-perfect. As Khruschev, Buscemi has one of his best parts in years. Khruschev's learning curve is steep, a fascinating arc from start to finish. British stage star Beale has been picking up nominations and wins as brutal puppeteer Beria, and Tambor's arrogant waffling as Malenkov makes all the reversals possible. Riseborough and Friend get laughs and some sympathy as Stalin's grown children: She's kind of a Masha figure (from Chekhov's The Seagull), while he's a boozy loose cannon who was born on third and thinks he hit a triple. Isaacs is a formidable presence as Field Marshal Zhukov; he's the hot knife that cuts through the congealed fat of bureaucrats who convene a committee to debate getting a doctor when they find Stalin felled. The Death of Stalin's tragicomic chaos vaults over a bar that few films would dream of attempting to clear.
Talk to your kids about ...
Do movies need clear heroes? There's clearly someone to root against in The Death of Stalin, but were you actually rooting for anyone? Does that affect your enjoyment of the film? Can you think of a major Hollywood movie with a similar situation? Are independent films like this more able to get away with that? Why or why not?
Does it seem disrespectful, appropriate, or both to portray historical figures cursing and plotting (and, in one case, urinating on himself in a time of physical distress)? Does it make those people seem more alive and their story more immediate? Or did it distract you and make you take the events less seriously?
Did you know anything about this period of history before the film? Did it make you want to learn more? Did you notice any political agenda in the filmmaking, or was it not about politics as much as it was about people?
Do you think it's appropriate to make a comedy about the Great Terror and the death of Joseph Stalin and its aftermath? What's gained or lost by telling the story comedically?
- In theaters: March 9, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: June 19, 2018
- Cast: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin
- Director: Armando Iannucci
- Studio: IFC Films
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout, violence and some sexual references
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