Oliver Stone Defines Useful Idiot in ‘The Putin Interviews’
After four hours, you’ll wish Vlad was your president
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin is a charmer, and after four hours of Oliver Stone’s softball questions he drew me in. Here was a world leader with the calm, intelligence and presence of mind lacking in so many other leaders these days. To here Putin tell it, he cares about climate change, nuclear disarmament and peaceful relations with the West.
Russia’s president smiles when he’s supposed to, cracks all the right jokes and flatters Stone into submission. When Stone asks an easy question, Putin tells Stone he’s quite cunning and is forcing him to divulge too much. But, as with so much media about Russia, Stone’s much vaunted interview with Putin is equal parts smoke, mirrors and bullshit.
Stone asks tough questions about election hacking and Ukraine, and Putin deflects with the deft and practiced hand of a political mastermind. “Putin’s not so bad,” I said to myself as the fourth hour finished. Then I remembered that gays and lesbians are persecuted in Russia, Putin’s political opponents tend to wind up dead and Russian agents probably messed with the U.S. election process.
But Putin’s personality is so powerful that he can make you forget all those facts for a few hours, especially when presented by a filmmaker as sympathetic as Stone. Showtime’s The Putin Interviews is best approached with both feet planted firmly on the ground and your head full of as much context as possible.
That’s how good Putin is at distortion. But his steely confidence can lead to mistakes.
Towards the end of the sprawling documentary, Putin pulls up footage on a smartphone of a purported Russian air strike against Islamic State. After the interview aired on Russian state T.V., a Russian blogger noticed Putin’s footage looked identical to a U.S. Apache helicopter strike on the Taliban from 2013.
The Kremlin, of course, denied that it used recycled footage. If you sit down to watch this thing, and I recommend anyone interested in geopolitics do so, keep that in the back of your head. One of the most powerful people on the planet allegedly tried to pass off American strike footage as Russian—even though there’s plenty of Russian footage he could’ve used.
From 2015 to 2017, Stone spent days interviewing Putin, editing down their conversations to four hours, which Showtime aired over four nights in June 2017. The Putin Interviews is a fascinating look at Putin’s worldview. Every day in America the media bombards us with stories about the Russian government, and most of the stories aren’t sympathetic.
Stone’s interviews are from the other side of the story, crafted with an American audience in mind—and straight from Putin’s mouth. The president knows how to handle journalists, and Stone is more than sympathetic to the Kremlin strongman. What we get, then, is propaganda so nakedly pro-Kremlin that it’s worth watching just to see what the other side thinks of itself.
I don’t like Stone or his work, but he is a talented filmmaker. In my opinion, he’s used those talents to lend credence to some vile anti-American conspiracy theories. In later years, he’s praised dictators and made heroes of people such as Edward Snowden and Hugo Chavez. The Putin Interviews is well filmed and edited, but he also placed himself in front of the camera. He’s an interviewer and, at times, the subject. He’s terrible at it.
Putin always looks Stone in the eyes and addresses his answers directly to him. Stone mostly refers to the president in the third person and speaks through the interpreter. So instead of asking a question directly to Putin, Stone will turn to the aid and say, “He’s said this in the past,” or “Could you ask him what he thinks of Ukraine?”
It’s weird—and doubly so when you consider that Putin speaks and understands English. Several times during the interview, Putin talks to Stone’s wife between takes, shakes her hand and gives her advice in perfect English on which tourist destinations she should visit while in Russia.
English isn’t Putin’s first language and I understand why he prefers to speak in Russian through a translator for the bulk of the interview. Simply put, he represents the citizens of the Russian Federation, and as their representative, he will speak in Russian without room for misinterpretation. But for Stone to cower in front of Putin and speak to him indirectly is odd.
That’s just the tip of the weird iceberg.
One of the quirkiest bits of the four-hour-long slog comes when Stone asks Putin if he’s seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove. Putin shakes his head and indicates he hasn’t. Stone tells the president that it’s a classic and that he’s gotta watch it. Cut to the two men sitting in the Kremlin staring at a screen while Peter Sellers talks to Dimitri.
Stone is excited. He looks like a kid who’s just discovered punk music and is desperately trying to get his friends to like it. Putin sits stonefaced and flashes a shadow grin now and again. After it’s all over, Stone hands the DVD case over to Putin and they shake hands. After a beat, Putin returns from his office with the case open to show it doesn’t have the disc inside.
“Typical American gift,” Putin says with a smile.
For every cute and strange moment, though, two-dozen bits of damning propaganda go unanswered and, in a few cases, are supported by Stone. The worst comes when the pair discuss the Soviet-Afghan War and the Second Chechen War.
Putin points out that America backed the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which is true. Then, he claims America also funded extremists in the Caucasus and Chechnya in the ’90s and early aughts.
After Putin makes this bold claim, Stone smash-cuts to footage of the 2002 Nord-Ost siege and the 2004 Beslan school assault. The unspoken implication here, and the one Stone uses his talents as a filmmaker to assert, is that American money funded terrorist attacks in Russia at a time when the two were countries were supposed friends.
After the horror of the footage, we come back to the interview. Stone asks for proof of the allegations and Putin tells him he wrote the CIA later and they sent him back a letter which confirmed his suspicions. Stone asks to see the letter but gives the leader an easy out.
“Obviously, the letter is top secret? It’s not available for viewing,” Stone says.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate,” Putin says. “My words are enough.”
This is the basic structure of every unpleasant conversation between the two. Stone will bring up something like the suppression of homosexuality in Russia, Putin will say no such suppression exists and Stone backs away without following up.
I began to keep track of Putin’s statements I knew to be lies or half-truths, but lost the stomach for it as they piled up. On homosexuality he says, “There are no restrictions whatsoever.” A quick scan of news sources other than those backed by the Kremlin reveal this as an obvious falsehood.
Of the media, Putin says, “We have hundreds of T.V. companies and radio companies and the state doesn’t control them in any fashion.” I’ve known a few former Russian media workers who’ve told me the exact opposite.
Stone, of course, asks about the Kremlin’s alleged hacking of the 2016 U.S. election. “Unlike many partners of ours, we never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries,” Putin says. I think the people of Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Georgia would disagree.
Yet, through all the lies and misinformation, Putin is still an easy man to like. He plays hockey, exercises, drives his own car and, even when lying, answers questions in a straightforward, articulate and no-bullshit kind of way that makes him endearing.
His default mode is stoicism, but he’s quick with a joke and easy with a smile. He rises to anger when appropriate and says all the right things for the camera. Stone did an incredible job making one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous authoritarian leaders look sympathetic.
Which is no surprise, from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez, Stone has long cozied up to anyone who America sees as an enemy. While it’s necessary to question and challenge one’s own government, it’s never good to buy the other side’s propaganda lock, stock and barrel.
That’s what Stone does in The Putin Interviews. Worse, he helps it along.