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Stalin: Movie Review

By kholio Dec 10, 2010 2157 Words
Yousef Khalil
Modern World History
Research Paper


Hollywood seems to portray most of the historical movies it produces inaccurately in order for them to sell. Movie producers twist the original story and make up some facts, translated into scenes, which would attract the audience to a particular movie. But should we blame Hollywood, or the audience for being less aware of our history, and just pay to watch movies for the sake of entertainment, not caring on how historically inaccurate it is? The idea of historical events literally being rewritten for the sake of an almost fictional retelling is something that can be regarded as controversial, but the fact of the matter is that Hollywood and film writers will always be able to take a historical story and spice it up simply for the sake of creating drama and subsequent revenue as a result. These films often contain the “based on a true story” message, but as long as it is not actually classed as a factual film, there is essentially nothing wrong with taking a historical event an re-telling it for the sake of a film. Not every event in history contained enough drama to be made into a film, but as long as the general basis of the event had the potential to create drama. Hollywood will always be able to take the story and make it into a blockbuster masterpiece just as they have done in the past and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. As long as they continue to do so, the concept is something that will continue to be shrouded in controversy from both historical enthusiasts and film critics alike.

Stalin (1992) was the movie of my choice that I think has the closest historically accurate content than any other movie. Narrated by Stalin's daughter Svetlana, this begins with Stalin joining Lenin and the Bolsheviks in their fight against the government, eventually setting up their own government themselves. Most of his biography is well known to us, however this movie brings out the character of Stalin as a psycho villain who did not trust a single person, not even his associates, and took extreme measures to exterminate all of them. His ego and paranoia alienated him from his friends and his family, even to the point where his wife Nadya (Julia Ormond) commits suicide and young Svetlana hates him. But in the end, he does not change, and this leads to his downfall and death. This movie really wasn’t a cinema film, but a television movie that wasn’t going to play neither in theaters nor around the world, which might count for something. This film would have been ruined by a big studio production. There is no way to "Hollywoodize" Josef Stalin. He was perhaps the worst and most brutal tyrant of the 20th century. Estimates range from 20-40 million deaths he was responsible for (Rummel, 2006) He was in no way a nice man. In him there was not an ounce of decency, only a vast void of feeling that Robert Duvall conveyed very well. The film itself almost seemed hollow or lifeless at times, and generally moved slowly. Passer's meticulous method pays off, however, with powerful performances from Plowright, Schell, and Ormond complimenting Duvall's brilliance. My whole point is Duvall is “Stalin’s” embodiment. This film is historically excellent. What most reviewers seem hung up on are accents, make-up and costumes. Most comment that it is historically inaccurate but give nothing very specific. The film is a broad overview of the life of Stalin and could never include every element of his life. All the important historical is there: the Revolution, the power struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, Stalin's rise to power, The great famines, The Great Purges and WWII. The film gives great insight into Stalin and the paranoia that he experienced and how that paranoia influenced the way he ruled over the Soviet Union. Many of the other characters were somewhat glossed over, but the film is essentially about Stalin and what made him tick, not about the intricate backgrounds of other revolutionaries and supporters. If the viewers don't come away from the film thinking what a bastard Stalin was, then they simply missed the point. The way that he treated his family, friends and so-called counterrevolutionaries is illustrated correctly in this film. The end of the film brings up a very important question that I think many previous reviewers had difficulty with. Fact: under Stalin the Soviet Union industrialized to levels never seen before. With industrialization, this could enable the USSR to compete in the world on par with the US. It would also lead to the development of a nuclear and hydrogen bomb, on par with the US (Brainerd, 2002). The film brings up the critical question of whether or not Stalin was necessary for the USSR. That is a powerful and thought provoking question that one carries away from this film. Any film that lingers in the viewers mind and makes them think has merit. Is it a perfect film? No. Is it historically inaccurate to merit throwing it away? Absolutely not. Robert Duvall does an excellent and convincing job of portraying a monster.

But this is one of the rare biopics that offers fewer opinions and more facts. Over three hours long, the movie covers the dictator's life from his exile in Siberia, when he took the name Stalin, up to his death in 1953. It does not try to feature the then world politics and even contemporary Russia as a whole, nor does it waste further screen time on the social reaction to Stalin's policies too much. It features Stalin and only Stalin. It focuses exclusively on his personal life (naturally, since the movie is narrated by his daughter Svetlana) and his take on the fellow comrades of the party. The filmmakers remain more-or-less true to the facts, giving neither imaginative shock moments nor just plain history.

Stalin’s wife committed suicide, which made me think whether that affected him psychologically later on. It is hard to know what effect did the death of Stalin’s wife had on him. Clearly the film needed an overarching plot structure to attempt an explanation of a complex man. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get inside Stalin's head. If anything, the man was driven by hatred and little else, a hatred that is difficult to articulate, but which was at least admirably displayed in the film. The portrayals of Stalin's wife and some of his associates were less convincing. 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. (Marsolais, 2010) 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. (Marsolais, 2010) Stalin takes all the heat and deserves plenty, but many of the rest of the people around him seem like innocents, fooled by him, finding out too late that they were caught up in his evil and were either 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 Kamenev included. This is perhaps something to bear in mind in watching a generally excellent and historically accurate film.

When evaluating Stalin, I think of it in comparison to Nixon, another biopic with similar scope and ambition. And, quite honestly, this film comes out streets ahead, for one single reason: it tries to explain what Stalin was, but not ‘why’ he was like it. There is no feeble psychoanalysis, no looking inside his mind, and no needless and questionable reconstructions of his own self-reflections. What you see in this movie is the director's interpretation of what you might have seen if you'd followed Stalin around. He gives you the dots. You can then join them by drawing your own conclusions. It works because Duvall is fantastic at Stalin, both in terms of appearance, voice characterization, and his general manner. Having read about Stalin for some years, I had no trouble accepting that the man on the screen was the 'Man of Steel'. The film is essentially reconstructed from the diaries of Stalin's daughter, Nadya, and therefore some aspects are historically questionable. But as historic epics go it follows the research and convention thinking quite closely; it doesn't digress into wild speculation like Stone, and doesn't propagandize either. It does make the error of dichotomizing characters into 'good' and 'bad' - Bukharin, for example, is portrayed as something of a great man in this film, then again, that seems to be the standard modus operandi of historical films these days. The biggest problem anyone making a film about a tyrant will face, is exactly how much they know (or don't know) about the atrocities their regimes commit, and to what extent do they get involved: do they sit, aloof, like Hitler at Bertchesgarten. Or do they lead slaughter brigades like Amin? Stalin seems to be quite detached from it all, even when on a train travelling through the freezing, starving villages of the steppes. A rabid paranoia about being overthrown, a distrust of others, and a fierce, almost inhumane determination to meet goals were at the core of Stalin's despotism. People meant little to Stalin: they were expendable, disposable and unreliable, even his wife and children, and this idea comes through loud and clear in this well put together and quite entertaining biographical epic.

Stalin appeals as a protagonist in the first years of his Soviet leadership. The film portrays him as an outcast, but one who is a firm follower of Lenin and communism. One event after another pushes him up the Soviet leadership ladder, until he becomes the "feared leader of Russia." What truly stirs the emotions of the viewer is how he betrays his friends and family in his fight for leadership. He purges the nation of anti-Stalinist politicians, executing many of his best friends cold-heartedly in the process. In the end, Stalin is a monumental device of terror, the funeral scene at the conclusion of the film drips with irony. Stalin appeals as a protagonist in the first years of his Soviet leadership. The film portrays him as an outcast, but one who is a firm follower of Lenin and communism. One event after another pushes him up the Soviet leadership ladder, until he becomes the "feared leader of Russia." What truly stirs the emotions of the viewer is how he betrays his friends and family in his fight for leadership. He purges the nation of anti-Stalinistic politicians, executing many of his best friends cold-heartedly in the process. In the end, Stalin is a monumental device of terror.

Works Cited:

Brainerd, Elizabeth. Reassessing the standard of living in the Soviet Union: an analysis using archival and anthropometric data. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2006.

"How Many Did Stalin Really Murder?" The Distributed Republic. 09 Dec. 2010 <>.

Marsolais, By Jesse. "Facing Up to Stalin - Magazine - The Atlantic." The Atlantic — News and analysis on politics, business, culture, technology, national, international, and food – 09 Dec. 2010 <>.

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