“Three times president,” says Oliver Stone. “Five assassination attempts, I’m told.”
Vladimir Putin, whose record of near-misses Stone is now reciting, doesn’t react.
“Not as much as Castro, who I’ve interviewed,” Stone continues. “I think he must’ve had 50.” It is clear Putin is supposed to be impressed. But with who — Castro, or Stone, sitting across from him, who is only too eager to have met the guy?
“I talked with Castro about that,” Putin then says. He calmly relates a bit of advice, direct from Castro himself, about taking one’s security in his own hands. “He said to me, ‘Do you know why I am alive?’” Putin recalls. “I asked him why. ‘Because I was always the one to deal with my security personally.’”
It’s a strange conversation: a friendly chat about Putin’s political record that lurches, suddenly, toward the specter of his death — not that Putin seems especially worried about the prospect or, for that matter, much else. He’s certainly got little to fear from Stone, whose inquiries to this point have been exceedingly congenial. The Putin Interviews, an edited series of conversations between Stone and the implacable Russian president recorded over the last two years, begins airing Monday night on Showtime. It is a boring, anesthetized claptrap: four hours of ass-eating masquerading as informed, even politically groundbreaking access journalism. It will be broadcast over four consecutive nights. (Critics have seen only the first two parts.)
Stone began recording the interviews in 2015, when he was in Russia filming Snowden, the biopic starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt that he released last year. (It wasn’t very good.) Whatever his reasons for initiating these conversations with Putin two years ago, our reasons for wanting to watch them in 2017 — merely a handful of days after James Comey’s Senate hearing, no less — are clear: We want to know about Russia and the U.S. presidential election. It makes sense that, in a four-hour special, it’d take a little time to get there. But should the preceding hours feel like JFK meets 50 First Dates?
“I think a lot of Western people don’t know much about you,” Stone says early on. “We’d like to know about your background — where you come from.” The series starts off with a mad dash through Putin’s life and political career: his Leningrad childhood, his time in the KGB, his early love for judo and, later, the lessons that being a man of sport afforded him during his three terms as Russia’s president and two terms as its prime minister. “You have a lot of discipline, sir,” says Stone, noticing, as we all do, that Putin seems to have willed his success into being.
Later we’ll witness the two men watching Dr. Strangelove together, flipping back and forth between Putin’s polite amusement and Stone’s giddy “I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching–Dr. Strangelove–with-the-president-of-Russia” smile. Can I be honest? I’m not seeing the chemistry. Showing one of your favorite movies to your new squeeze is always nerve-racking, but this instance seems especially rough. Stone gives Putin the DVD of the movie as a gift. Out of politeness, Putin compliments Stanley Kubrick’s artistic prescience and sharp understanding of nuclear warfare, yadda yadda — then he walks out without the DVD.
These aren’t blandly presented back-and-forth interviews, like the kind you’d see on 20/20. Stone films his conversations with Putin at odd, jumpy angles, seemingly circling around the room as they talk, until even Stone’s camera crew and translator — the entire apparatus of his operation — are visible. It has the feverish, frenetic energy of his movies, minus the fact that real life is always so much duller. Stone wants us to see Putin as a reasonable guy, which means Putin never comes off as uncertain or needlessly rude: He isn’t good television. But the event of these interviews gets hyped up by Stone’s instincts as a filmmaker. Stone is most famous for making meaty polemics about history and American political institutions, and you can tell, from the craftsmanship here, that he wants the feat of this series to feel as monumental, like living history.
The interviews themselves, which play out in long segments at diverse locales — a walking tour of the Kremlin throne room, a hockey game, a country drive — give Putin ample space to lay bare his ideas about his country and ours. I’d have preferred to write “ample rope to hang himself,” but Putin is of course too smart for that, and Stone isn’t exactly laying any traps. Putin, a humble steward of his immense power, pointedly declines to criticize previous holders of his office (“I don’t think I have the right to give any assessment to Gorbachev or the personality of Yeltsin”). Even when he’s indulging the stats on his own political accomplishments — how he won 72 percent of the vote in 2004, how Russia’s national debt is now only 12 percent of its GDP — he does so without the inner tremblings of insecurity you usually sense from men who insist on talking about themselves. That’s the nature of Putin’s self-presentation, of course. But it’s Stone, not Putin, who tries to make a movie out of it.
Stone insists that parts three and four of the series will be more combative. Maybe so. “I’m here to get Putin to talk,” he recently told The New York Times. “Let him talk. If I can encourage him to talk by having an empathetic ear, that is the reporter’s way. I’m also a dramatist. I’m encouraging my actors to be better. To say more. To give me a performance.” This is familiar territory for Stone, who has interviewed Hugo Chavez and, of course, Fidel, to say nothing of his work as one of the most mainstream political filmmakers in America for the past 30 years. A recent work of note is the 2016 documentary Ukraine on Fire, which Stone produced but didn’t direct, that was accused of being a suspiciously Kremlin-friendly take on the 2013–14 revolution. That doesn’t make me more dubious than usual of Stone’s intentions when it comes to these Putin interviews. Stone is a famed historical revisionist. But some of what occurs here surprised me. For example, keep your ears peeled for Stone’s theories about the U.S.’s plans for the Russian economy — and for Putin’s response.
“Do you know what they say among Russian people?” Putin asks Stone, still reflecting on the subject of his death. “They say that those who are destined to be hanged are not going to drown.” Are The Putin Interviews an instance of Stone hanging or drowning? Not that it matters — the series is DOA, either way. But it’s also, in its own way, a remarkable document. For Stone, the endgame isn’t analyzing what Putin says or believes, or even really questioning it, but simply documenting himself in the midst of it all. He indulges a liberal fetish for making everyone seem reasonable; worse, he conflates that impulse with journalism. But he’s hardly alone there.