IT'S very hard to make a movie about a man who killed 40 million people," says Mark Carliner. "It doesn't compute."
The executive producer of HBO's upcoming drama "Stalin" was telling me, over lunch the other day, about the key problem he faced in treating one of modern history's leading villains.
"I wanted to help an audience understand the Russian experience," he says. "Americans love gangster movies, and that was the commercial hook originally. But then I had to figure out how to tell the story, which was a tremendous puzzle. It took me many hours pacing up and down the beaches of Santa Barbara [Calif.], where I went to read and reflect."
The show that emerged - and will premiere Saturday at 8 p.m. - does give us a thuggish Stalin who operates in an infernal world of petty schemes and grand designs. At times it could as well be Al Capone sitting there among his underlings, taunting them with a sinister playfulness. Told through the eyes of his daughter Svetlana and his wife Nadya, the tale traces both historical events and the Soviet dictator's intermittent cruelty to family and friends, taking him from his early days after the fall of th e tsar in 1917 up to his death in 1953. Authentic sites like Stalin's dacha and Lenin's apartment in the Kremlin, as well as news clips and other devices, build a gritty, documentary-like context - often somber and ominous - turning some scenes into an expressionist world that externalizes Stalin's dark, mental landscape.
At the center is Robert Duvall - complete with false nose, black hair, and mustache - who offers a gut-level Stalin, full of grunts and baleful looks, relentlessly grappling with the demons of his paranoid thought. It is a forceful character made credible largely because the actor had the insight to circumscribe his efforts.
You accept the portrayal because it seems restrained in what it implicitly purports to know about the subject. Nowhere does Mr. Duvall appear to be claiming "This is established fact," but rather "Here are believable emotions that might explain the terrible deeds."
But does any of this find Stalin's true nature? That, in fact, is the main thing I wanted to learn from Carliner. Can private and public scenes, and a string of necessarily apocryphal exchanges featuring a Stalin who speaks English with a Ro-o-o-shin accent, really look into Stalin's soul? How do you make that connection between personal moments and massive crimes?
"That's the core question," Carliner acknowledges. "How do you unlock this? You don't want to do illustrated political history.... We had to do what Stalin did with the Russian people. We had to seduce the audience. If you start off and Stalin is this monster, it's inaccurate. Stalin was loved. You may not be able to tell a story about the murder of 40 million people, but you can tell about a man who destroys his wife, her family, and all of their friends, and let that become the metaphor for the nation ."
Carliner says he felt "like an archeologist, having recovered a fragment - maybe something we know Stalin said - and then creating the dialogue of an enormously secretive man. Trying to penetrate him was a real challenge."
Does the show meet the challenge? It's worth watching to see for yourself, even if your ultimate answer is no.