A Brute Too Big for TV Screen : Despite a good effort by Robert Duvall in the title role, HBO’s ‘Stalin’ fails to tell the complete story of the tyrant’s enormous crimes--and many achievements.

In 1930, German journalist Paul Scheffer observed about being in the presence of Joseph Stalin: “You feel at once that he is dangerous.”

So, too, do you instantly feel that the epic 20th-Century despot ably depicted by Robert Duvall in HBO’s “Stalin” is someone to fear deeply. It lasts from the moment you meet him being rejected for World War I service in the czar’s crumbling army until his death in 1953, surrounded by toadies at his dacha at Kuntsevo.

But just as television seems incapable of capturing the totality of Hitler and his Holocaust, a small-screen movie of a little less than three hours is unable to present a complete, unabridged story of Stalin that pans across the vast slaughtering fields upon which he built his considerable achievements. The country and its history overmatch the medium.

Airing at 8 p.m. Saturday, “Stalin” instead depicts the ruthlessness of its Georgian protagonist on a relatively small stage, in effect asking viewers to imagine by extension the full range of his crimes. After all, if he does this to his family and closest comrades--the old Bolsheviks with whom he made revolution--what even wider horrors might he cause?


There were many, as history tells us--not that you’d necessarily get the message from watching “Stalin.” Beautifully filmed (by Vilos Zsigmond) and gorgeously staged, it rivets you to the great tyrant’s personal story while too rarely emerging from behind the walls of the Kremlin and his country estate to measure the full, devastating impact of his Machiavellian policies.

Yet because there’s something disturbingly charismatic about evil (why else do swastikas on covers sell books?), this is a fascinating character study even in outline form, and even though it tends to slide across the years the way a vodkaholic slurs words.

Like its subject’s life, “Stalin” has “big event” scrawled all over it. Haunted as much by the spirit of glasnost as by Stalinism, much of the filming was done in the Moscow area, with Russian authorities even letting director Ivan Passer set up inside that former steely bastion of secrecy, the Kremlin itself. Thanks to producer Mark Carliner, moreover, the production costs of nearly $10 million--a modest sum for a theatrical movie but absolutely soaring for TV--are visible on the screen. And even if Stanislas Syrewicz’s tumultuous score is overwhelming in spots, it does sound expensive.

By so often isolating Stalin, however, the story isolates viewers, too.

Paul Monash’s script does have Stalin’s ill-fated young wife, Nadya Alliluyeva (Julia Ormand), encounter suffering peasants while returning to Moscow from the home of her parents. From the window of her train, she witnesses a grim, chaotic scene, as starving Russians protesting Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization of farms are dealt with harshly by troops. “Tell Comrade Stalin what is happening,” a woman begs Nadya.

Stalin surely did know what was happening. And it is this incident in the movie that so deeply moves Nadya that she has a public clash with Stalin that is followed by her suicide.

Terroristic power politics inside the Kremlin is what consumes much of “Stalin,” though, as the Soviet leader begins bumping off his adversaries, real and imagined. The story notes how Stalin schemed to gain control of the young Bolshevik government and how, driven by ambition and paranoia after Lenin’s death in 1924, he consolidated his power and erased such rivals as Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev--"the three little Yids,” he calls them here--en route to becoming absolute ruler. Bukharin and even Ordjonikidze, Stalin’s old pal from Georgia, also will fall.

Never straying beyond reasonable conjecture, Monash’s script is historically on the mark. But that mark is somewhat limited. World War II, which devastated the Soviet Union while presenting Stalin at both his worst and best, seems to whiz by. And where is Stalin at Yalta or Potsdam, or later even thinking to himself about Cold War-style politics or the United States?

As if to accentuate Stalin’s murderous tendencies, moreover, some of his political associates and victims are softened here, even though their own careers were also streaked with ruthlessness. Although he does state at one point that “no revolution is possible without terror,” for example, Lenin (Maximilian Schell) is almost grandfatherly, the kind of comrade you’d find on a park bench handing out suckers to small children. In a way, such relatively benign portraits limit our perspective on the revolution that Lenin engineered and that Stalin rode to power, and the movie never does give a clear sense of what Bolshevism is supposed to stand for or what it replaced.

Nor, despite a good effort by Duvall, does it trace the source of Stalin’s animus and provide a sense of what he is all about. Who is this man whom Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas insisted was “convinced he was carrying out the will of history”? Is he a gangster who got lucky? A sociopath? Some sort of evil genius? A flawed visionary?

Although not the “ungainly dwarf of a man” pictured by Djilas, Duvall has Stalin’s thick gut, slow gait and stiff movements. From behind a wax museum face with slits for eyes, Duvall holds your attention by playing Stalin as secretive and inscrutable, a plausible take on a man described by one of his biographers, Isaac Deutscher, as hiding tension and anguish behind a “mask of unruffled calmness.” The calmness here on occasion gives way to fits of boorishness and rage. Yet the complex figure obscured by the mask never appears, leaving it to viewers to read his eyes and speculate about his true motivations.

“Where would Russia be without Stalin?” Nadya’s father protests when she doubts his devotion to the people. Did the Soviet Union need Stalin? It was a reasonable question then, and it’s a reasonable one now at a time, 75 years after the revolution, when calls for another “firm hand"--a la Stalin?--resonate across the dangerously chaotic Russia tenuously governed by Boris Yeltsin.

Comparing Stalin with Hitler works only to a point. Both men committed heinous acts and caused the deaths of millions of innocent people. Whereas the Germany that Hitler left behind was impoverished rubble, however, Stalinism gave backward Russia “two towering and inseparable mountains,” says historian Stephen Cohen, “a mountain of accomplishment alongside a mountain of crimes.”

The accomplishment was most visible in industry and even education. But it’s crimes that we witness Saturday. Although not part of the movie, Stalin did something in 1949 that typified his personal barbarism when he had Nadya’s sisters arrested after one of them had come out with a simple memoir that included some folksy recollections of Stalin.

Svetlana asked her father why he did it. “They knew too much,” Stalin replied, “and they talked too much.”