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Two Films from Real Events: One a Hijacking Suspenser; the Other a Comedy of Paranoia

The Death of Stalin
British writer/director Armando Iannucci is best known for his caustic HBO comedy series, “Veep.” He also scored with the droll feature “In the Loop” (2009), a lampoon of politicians and bureaucracies on both sides of the Atlantic.  Now, he has turned his attention, somewhat surprisingly, to a piece of history in the pitch-black farce, “The Death of Stalin” (the film is rated “R” and runs 107 minutes).

Based on a French graphic novel La mort de Staline, the film depicts the Soviet power struggles following the death of dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) in 1953. The death scene comes early, in the context of a Moscow radio concert that has to be summarily repeated because the Great Man did not hear the live performance. The extravagant lengths to which the program director (Paddy Considine) must go to recreate the transmission is done in a Keystone Kops manner that sets the ribald tone of much of this picture, while at the same time the sequence’s gripping paranoia about placating Stalin signals the mordant side of the film.  These two elements—goofy and scathing—are carefully juggled throughout the movie.

After the concert, Stalin has a massive stroke in his office, but his night guards are too frightened to go in to see if the premier is OK. By morning, the parade of sycophants from the party’s Central Committee stumbles in to find the old man dead, lying in his own urine. The parade is led by Deputy Party Chairman Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), party leader Khruschev (Steve Buscemi), Vice Chairman Molotov (Michael Palin), and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), among others. Nonplussed, these panicked leaders begin immediately struggling to both undercut and one-up each other to seize and maintain power.  Among them, Malenkov, in line for the head post, is a mincing nonentity, Khruschev is a profane brute, and Molotov is the ultimate party-line toady. Only Beria, an unrelieved swine, seems to have a clear plan to power: by killing or jailing as many enemies as possible.

Tangentially based on real events, the film takes plenty of license, though, as the director has indicated, some elements, like the repeat concert episode, really happened and are too zany not to be included. Verisimilitude, though, is hardly the point of “The Death of Stalin.” The Anglo-American cast speaks a mash up of accents: Stalin seems to be a cockney, Buscemi spouts in caustic Brooklynese, Palin uses a semi-tosh Britspeak, and Beale (a Shakespearean actor) speaks in a corrosive growl. Perhaps the funniest line deliveries of all are those of Field Marshall Zhukhov, played imperiously by the medal-laden Jason Isaacs, whose hilarious putdowns are delivered in an accent located somewhere between Yorkshire and Scotland.

Iannucci’s depiction of the bizarre struggle among the committee members at times seems like a zany update of the Marx(ist) Brothers, with the pratfalls and one-liners mingling uncomfortably with the darkest sides of Stalin’s legacy. It’s a delicate line the film treads, ready giggles tempered by chilly winces—sometimes in the same scene! In all, it makes for a heady stew.

Rosamund Pike (left) and Daniel Brühl star in José Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe,” a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

7 Days in Entebbe
“7 Days in Entebbe” is a “tick-tock” thriller, one that counts down minutes, hours, or, in this case, days to a dramatic resolution. Older audience members may recall the real incident, but younger filmgoers can be forgiven if they don’t know about this riveting rescue (Now on area screens, the film is rated “R” and runs 107 mins,)

The plot opens when two German radicals, Wilfried Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike), associated with the Bader-Meinhof Gang, and two members from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), take over an El Al flight from Athens to Paris on June 27,1976. The group aims to trade the plane’s hostages for imprisoned Palestinians in Israel and commands that the airliner stop in Benghazi before heading to their final destination, Entebbe Airport in Uganda.  There, the country’s despot, Idi Amin Dada (Nonso Anozie), is happy to welcome them (the plane carries almost 250 passengers, more than 80 of them Jewish). Thus begins a waiting game, as the terrorists isolate the Jews and then wait for their demands to be met.

Parallel to the terrorist/hostage narrative are the machinations—both political and military–in Israel over how to handle the crisis. Key figures here are the earnest Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his canny Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), who must decide whether and what kind of military action they might take and, just as importantly, the political ramifications of any effort they launch. As it turned out, the raid was a thorough success, with the terrorists summarily executed, only four hostages lost, and with one (famous) Israeli casualty, Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the older brother of Benjamin. 

The film does not provide backstories of the multiple characters: its point is taut conflict. The director, Brazilian José Padilha, has shown competence in this genre with another tick-tock film from 2002, “Bus 174.”  We learn a bit of Wilfried and Brigitte’s backgrounds from flashbacks in Germany, showing them plotting the act. The two play out contrasting roles, she the more fanatic and excitable, Bose the calmer one, somewhat more skeptical of their cause. Pike carries off her assignment well, with a good German accent and an anxious face showing both fear and fervor.  Brühl is excellent, trying to make more rounded and complex what could easily be a two-dimensional figure. As for the Israeli leaders, Marsan is an unctuous and gnomic presence, while Ashkenazi exudes cool reason along with political smarts.

No breakthrough, no masterpiece, “7 Days in Entebbe” is a foursquare rendering of an amazing military action.

To note: This reviewer has a very personal connection to this drama.  In June 1976, I was a Foreign Service officer living in Nairobi with my family. On June 27th—the date of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv—I saw my wife and two daughters off on a flight to London with a brief stopover at Entebbe.  I learned later that they left Entebbe on the last flight out, after 11 pm.  The next day came the Air France hijacking.  Then, after the raid itself, I came to a stunning realization: if my family’s flight out of Entebbe had been delayed for any reason, the hijacked plane would have landed and closed the airport down, leaving my family held at the same airport as the hostages.  What might have been…

Mike Appearing at Hill Center
I will be moderating a talk with scholar Aynne Kokas on her book, “Hollywood Made in China” which examines Hollywood’s role in scaling up China’s film infrastructure. The program is from 7 to 9 pm on Tuesday, April 24 at Hill Center.  More details at hillcenterdc.org.


Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.

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