The Death of Stalin

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor

Director: Armando Iannucci

Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows


In the opening scene of The Death of Stalin, a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is listening and informs the head of the radio station Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) that he would like a recording. Andreyev realises to his utter terror that the concert is not being recorded and now he must make one in the time it will take Stalin’s envoy to arrive for its collection. This means convincing famed pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an avowed critic of the Soviet regime, to perform the whole concerto once more, sending the secret police to abduct another conductor after the first one is rendered unconscious, and pulling people off the street so that the acoustics sound right. They go through all these astoundingly absurd lengths in order to comply with the General Secretary’s request, so absolute was Stalin’s terror and the country’s fear of him. I knew going in that I was about to see a farcical satire, but I could never have imagined just how agonisingly dark that comedy would be.

As Stalin receives the recording, enclosed is a note from Yudina outlining all of the ways that he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note he laughs, then starts coughing, and then collapses. After Stalin is discovered the next day, the members of the Central Committee are alerted. They include security chief Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Also part of the committee is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who Stalin added to his list of enemies just the night before. With the Soviet leader now on his deathbed, his advisors resolve to act quickly in order to consolidate their authority in the power vacuum that is to follow. Key ingredients to a triumphant succession and securing control over the USSR are the Red Army, led by Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). As factions arise and plots are conspired, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose.

The Death of Stalin is a farce in the same way as Dr. Strangelove. It takes a deeply frightening story and finds humour in the absurdity of it all; the nightmarish circumstances, the deranged logic of the events that transpire, the malicious nature of these characters, and even in the awful tragedy of this brutal regime. It works on the principle that people are funnier when they are being serious and sincere, as opposed to when they’re trying to be funny. There is enough distance between us and the past that we can recognise the behaviour and thinking of these characters, whether they be the calculating opportunistic conspirators, the blind ideological loyalists, or the terrified and powerless subjects, as being ridiculous without much exaggeration needed. When the most feared and dangerous man in the world is completely immobilised on his office floor lying in his own urine and nobody will even suggest that he might be dying for fear that he might recover and punish them for their treachery, you’ve got to laugh.

It works because the characters are all played realistically as subjects of the pressures and anxieties that characterised Stalinist Russia, all shrouded in an emotional fog that prevents them from seeing their predicament as the disturbed comedy that it is. The ensemble Iannucci has assembled is stellar and each actor assumes their meaty role beautifully. Beale shines as Beria, a conniving figure whose devious gears start turning the instant Stalin is discovered and wastes no time in sinking his claws into Stalin’s appointed successor, Tambor’s hilariously vain and spineless Malenkov. Buscemi is great in his turn as the intensely anxious Khrushchev, so edgy and stressed in his attempt to stay on top of things that you swear he’ll have a stroke himself before it’s all over. Palin is comic gold as Molotov, the feeble yes-man who will go along with his government’s every whim unfailingly (even when those whims concern the question of his wife’s loyalty). Also worthy of note is Isaacs as the buff, gruff and tough Zhukov, a man of action who doesn’t particularly care who succeeds Stalin and will go along with whoever has the best deal.

Iannucci has previously distinguished himself with his TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep, both about politicians and spin-doctors, made up of some combination of ambition, incompetence and nastiness, navigating the turbulent world of government, publicity and demographics. With The Death of Stalin he takes his brand of comedy to new heights. Unlike before where a cock up for Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer could result in a media embarrassment or a political loss, here a cock up means a bullet in the head. Thus the schemes are more diabolical, the scrambling is more desperate, and the self-aware reflection is more alarming than ever before. The regime of Stalin was a truly horrendous, unbearable time and this film shows us just how appalling it could get through a wickedly dark comedic lens. As with Dr. Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, things get so horrible, chaotic and devastating over time that by the end you won’t know whether to laugh or pull your own hair out.

★★★★★

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The Accountant

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Bill Dubuque


Autism is both a tricky and sensitive subject to portray in cinema and it can lead to much umbrage when done badly. Even Rain Man, a movie that was praised for opening the door to serious and thoughtful depictions of ASD, is problematic in its misleading suggestion that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are likely to be savants. Efforts have been made over the last few decades to represent autism as the complex, multifaceted condition that it is (X+Y is one recent movie that was audacious and touching in its portrayal) but there are still movies today that fall victim to the stereotypes associated with ASD. As someone who neither is nor knows anybody on the spectrum my take on The Accountant cannot help but be limited. I do however know when a film provides a problematic depiction of its subject and when it defeats its own message and can verify that this film struggles on both counts.

As a child Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, a condition that has allowed him to become a highly capable accountant whose practice is actually a front for several criminal enterprises.. He is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a cutting edge robotics company, to inspect their finances when a discrepancy is discovered by their accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the head of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, is investigating Wolff’s accounts and blackmails data analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him. When Wolff’s investigation uncovers evidence of foul play, he and Dana suddenly become the targets of a hitman (Jon Bernthal), forcing them to go on the run. As the body count continues to rise Wolff must use the military skills he learned from his father to keep Dana safe and learn the truth behind this conspiracy.

The movie’s problem is that it wants to advocate the cause for autism, that being the idea that different abilities can come in different forms and that we need to reconsider what we deem to be “normal”, but doesn’t know how. I’m sure the gestures and expressions Affleck provides are accurate given the research he conducted but the story he’s in doesn’t know how to treat his character. Autism is used in this film as a plot device, making Wolff a savant so that he can be the great accountant the movie wants him to be, and it’s used as comic relief, as in the awkward interactions with love interest Dana Cummings. That the movie wants to try and normalise autism is all well and good, except that it goes so far out of its way to remind us of how abnormal Wolff is and laughs at his expense. What’s even more problematic is the movie’s message about victimhood being a choice. Wolff’s condition, so his father believes, makes him a victim but only if he lets it. Instead Wolff exposes himself to deafening heavy metal music and bright flashing lights while rolling a dowel along his calves every day or so, a painful experience for him, to keep his nervous system in check. As far as this movie is concerned autism is not a condition to be managed but one to be beaten into submission.

It seemed to me that the movie thought of Wolff’s autism as more of a concept than a subject. That is, the film wanted an action hero with a mental disability because it wanted an action hero with a mental disability. By giving ASD to a character of Jason Bourne-like skills (or Batman if you prefer), it almost seems like the movie is giving itself a licence to depict Wolff as an inhuman killing machine. Using what can only be described as a “superpower” Wolff can quickly aim a gun with mathematical precision, fight as if impervious to pain, and shoot a man in the face with cold indifference. Although we do get some pretty intense action scenes out of it, they come at the expense of a meaningful, substantive exploration of a real condition that millions of people all over the world live with.

Without the autism, The Accountant would just be a standard action movie with a convoluted plot and underwritten characters. The film underuses the talent at its disposal, most notably John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The FBI subplot has, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to do with the main story. There is a plot twist in the third act that is beautifully underscored in its absurdity by Lithgow’s dumbfounded expression. Affleck does give a technically good performance, but does so for a character that the movie doesn’t respect. The action scenes are very good indeed and they might have been enough to make this movie had they not enabled the disrespectful (or maybe misguided is the word) treatment of this character and his condition. There is a positive to be taken away which is that this film is, I think, sincere in its attempt to become a part of the conversation taking place. It fails, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that Hollywood is trying. This failure could end up being the motivation that inspires other filmmakers (perhaps even those who actually are on the spectrum) to do better.

★★