To appreciate this film you might read any one of the best accounts of Stalin's dictatorship by Roy Medvedev, Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Simon Sebag Montefiore, or Donald Rayfield. If you know these books you'll find little reason to argue with how this film portrays 'The Boss'. Other reviewers on this site have noted how well Robert Duvall captures Stalin's surly, crude, cunning, sadistic, paranoid personality. They're right. He's marvellous in the role. One reviewer has questioned whether Voroshilov would have dared to shout at Stalin, as he does in this film, at the start of the war. This is a fair point as Stalin picked his men carefully for their inability to stand up to him or take initiative. However, Donald Rayfield cites an example of the normally slavish Voroshilov doing something very like what is portrayed in the film, shouting at Stalin as war with the Nazis was looming for murdering most of the Red Army high command and so crippling the defences of the USSR. He was one of the few men to do anything of the kind and survive Stalin
The film is shot at the scenes of the crimes - the Kremlin at Stalin's Kuntsevo dacha - and is sumptuous watching as a result. Watch out for Satlin's huge, waddling shadow on the ceiling as he climbs a great staircase, an incubus about to settle on the Soviet People. It might be a standard trick but it doesn't look contrived.
Rather less convincing are the portrayals of Stalin's wife and some of his associates. This is the fault of the script or the direction or both, not the actors. For example, Stalin's second wife Nadya was not quite the principled heroine seen here who apparently took her own life because she saw no other escape from the evil that her husband was bringing to the country. The real Nadya brought some of her own problems to her marriage and these contributed to her death. Bukharin, wretched in his final weeks, may have been the best of them but that was saying little. He was not quite the noble, tragic 'swan' portrayed. He was prone to hysterics - about his own problems primarily - the suffering millions could suffer as long as he was approved of. During his final imprisonment, Bukharin wrote to Stalin offering to do anything, put his name to anything, if only Stalin would be his 'friend' again. Stalin takes all the heat and deserves plenty but many of the rest seem like innocents, fooled by him, finding out too late that they were caught up in his evil and corrupted or destroyed by it. But Stalin, like Hitler and any other dictator, was only possible because those around him saw advantage for themselves in supporting him. If there's a problem with this film it's that it lets some of Stalin's minions off the hook. It settles for extremes - Stalin and his chiefs of secret police on the one hand, and the good or loyal but naive on the other. But the only innocents were the people of the former Soviet Union, those far from power whose lives were destroyed according to the requirements of a command economy - so many deaths and so many slaves were required from every walk of life, like so many tons of iron, to meet quotas. (They are acknowledged in the film's dedication). Those around Stalin, however, were all up to their elbows in blood just as he was, obsessed with their own positions, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamanev included. This is perhaps something to bear in mind in watching a generally excellent and historically accurate film. If you're interested in the psychology of Stalin and his henchmen try Jack Gold's 'Red Monarch' (1983) with Colin Blakely as Stalin. The history comes second to the general impression in that film but it's worth the sacrifice. Duvall as Stalin is marvellous in a deadly serious way, but Blakely is bloody marvellous in a deadly funny way. Red Monarch also spares the audience English peppered with 'Da' to remind you that these people are really speaking Russian, and faked Eastern-European accents.
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