Oliver Stone is one of the most seminal filmmakers of our time. He is an incredible writer and director, who has turned out some of the most critically acclaimed and influential films of the last thirty years, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, JFK, and Nixon amongst many others. As an enormous political junkie, when I heard that Stone was granted unprecedented access to the enigmatic Russian president Vladimir Putin in order to conduct over a dozen interviews over the course of two years for a documentary, I was extremely excited and intrigued. I awaited the premiere of Showtime’s four-part documentary series, The Putin Interviews, with high anticipation and expectations – especially in light of the controversial (and still debated in some circles) role that Russia played in the 2016 presidential election. As it turns out, Oliver Stone produced a compelling, insightful, rare, and not entirely unsympathetic look at the enigmatic Russian leader.
In one-on-one interviews (minus Putin’s interpreter) that took place from 2015 through February 2017, Stone and Putin discuss a wide array of topics. Amongst other things, they delved into Putin’s childhood under communism, his personal and professional lives, the Cold War, his time as a KGB agent, his long political career, United States and Russia relations, and – of course – the controversial and contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election that saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. The thing that struck me the most about these candid conversations was how clever Putin comes across. He seems to have an incredible knowledge of Western history, and a firm grasp on the varying cultures and intricately delicate politics ranging across the entire Western world. He comes across as confident and charming, despite a lot of the more questionable comments he makes during these many interviews, to the point where he even seems to woo Stone himself a lot of the time. Indeed, the interviewer and the interviewee seem to have an excellent rapport, and the discussion between them seems to be honest, frank, and direct.
Of course, Putin has a reputation for being quite guarded, and despite Oliver Stone’s best efforts, that doesn’t change over the course of these four hours. In addition, Putin being Putin, it’s hard as a viewer to take everything he says at face value, for he has an international reputation of lying and manipulation. Having said that, the Russian leader does manage to express his views on Russia’s past and current place in the world in a way that makes it easier for us to see him and his supporters in a comparable light to people living in Western countries, for their worldview makes sense even if there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s extremely hypocritical. Lest Western civilization comes to view him as too humane, however, Putin does make more than a few dubious and offensive comments over the course of these four episodes – including derogatory comments about women and homosexuals, and offering praise toward Joseph Stalin.
There are two incredibly interesting exchanges that occur throughout The Putin Interviews, however, that I want to remark upon. First are Putin’s comments about NATO, which he obsessively keeps coming back around to. He’s one-hundred percent certain in his beliefs that the organization is an instrument of the United States, designed to bring Russia to heel. Despite the calm way in which the Russian leader talks about this theory, his paranoia is clear; even though the Cold War technically ended for the rest of the world, it still seems to go on in Putin’s mind.
The second interesting exchange is when Oliver Stone presses Putin on the claims that Russia interfered with the 2016 election – a claim which all of the United States intelligence agencies, and the intelligence agencies of all of our allies, assert is true. As expected, the Russian president denies these allegations, but his demeanor changes entirely when discussing them. His normal air of confidence gives way to more nervous ticks, such as avoiding eye contact and suddenly becoming uncertain as to what to do with his hands, which seemingly hints at a deeper truth that he’s trying to avoid. And as if these unconscious betrayals from his body aren’t fascinating enough, listening to his defensive responses regarding whoever did hack the DNC are incredible. In essence, his argument is that Russia didn’t hack the DNC, but whoever did, is not in the wrong – they merely exposed the problems within the organization to the public, and both Hillary Clinton and the Democrats as a whole should accept defeat and reflect on how they lost the election themselves. He goes even further than that, asserting that he didn’t believe the hacking changed the outcome of the election in the slightest, for Trump tapped into the true nature of the majority of Americans and would have won regardless.
Despite the serious nature of many of the conversations that occur between Stone and Putin, there are moments of both unintentional and intentional levity sprinkled throughout all four episodes. An example of the former is when Stone forces Putin to watch Dr. Strangelove with him, and it’s clear from the Russian president’s reactions that he couldn’t care less about the film, despite offering polite comments about it. An example of the latter being Oliver Stone’s staging of certain interviews, in which he directs Putin when to enter, how to enter, how to act and react, and even critiques his timing – all as though the man is a performer in one of his Academy Award winning films. Putin, to his credit, plays along with the director’s wishes, even joking around with him during these moments on occasion.
Technically speaking, this documentary is beautifully shot and edited. Indeed, Oliver Stone demonstrates that he is still master of his craft, and knows how to stage and frame every single moment caught on camera. Overall, the interviews with Putin are fascinating, mind-boggling, insightful, and – at times – terrifying; sometimes, all of these things combined. Though I got the impression while watching this series that Stone modeled these interviews after the famous Frost-Nixon discussions, these were not nearly as enlightening as those were, and Stone proves to to be much less aggressive an interviewer than Frost had been. Likewise, Putin is not nearly as easy a target as the disgraced Nixon was at the time either. Anybody expecting the Russian leader to bare his soul will be sorely disappointed and should temper their expectations, given his reputation on the world stage. Stone does, however, manage to extract enough from Putin to make this documentary series worthwhile watching. Indeed, the rare glimpse at Putin’s ever-shifting personality alone makes these interviews worth anyone’s time!
All in all, The Putin Interviews serve as a fascinating look at one of the most controversial leaders of modern times. It’s a short, quick series to get through for people who are into politics, love world history, or just enjoy a good documentary. Oliver Stone has a reputation for delivering high quality material, and while this may not be his best piece of work, it’s enjoyable and insightful nonetheless. I can’t recommend it enough.
What did you think of The Putin Interviews? And if you haven’t watched it yet, do you have any plans to? Let me know in the comments below!