The director Oliver Stone (Snowden, JFK, Natural Born Killers) spent a number of hours with Vladimir Putin between 2015 and 2017. His interviews with the president of Russia have been edited down to four packed hours and will air on Showtime on four consecutive nights, starting Monday. The interviews aren’t combative — Stone did not arrive in Moscow on a mission to condemn Putin to his face, or to confront him about Russian espionage in America and elsewhere. Instead, Stone adopts an approach that is best described as “the flexible way” — which happens to be the phrase Putin uses to describe his life-long hobby, the daily practice of the martial art of judo. (Stone provides some helpful footage showing a black-belted Putin tossing a luckless Russian onto a gym mat.)
If we have now been treated to a hundred days-plus of President Donald Trump’s regular boasting, President Putin often matches Trump in the ego area, telling Stone that he considers himself “a judo master.” Putin, now in his mid-60s, is also filmed by Stone playing hockey with a professional Russian team in what is obviously a staged event intended to impress his American guest.
Stone asks Putin a wide range of questions: about Russian history, NATO, various treaties and agreements, and various military conflicts over which Putin has presided. Stone is not aggressive because it is very clear that Putin would not respond well to aggression. A forceful personality himself, unused to being disagreed with, one senses Putin would have shut down the interview if anything agitated him too much. Instead, Stone is quietly persistent and ready with a follow-up question he has scribbled down on an always-present yellow legal pad. Stone offers a scoffing expression if he feels Putin is being evasive — body language Putin picks up on. It’s a method that works, to the extent that Stone is invited back, time after time, to continue the chats.
The conversations are conducted via a Russian translator, and you have to be in the mood to read a lot of subtitles to engage with Putin and Stone’s policy discussions, but that small effort is well worth it. There are light moments here and there. At one point during a discussion of nuclear disarmament, Stone asks the Russian leader if he’s seen the 1964 Stanley Kubrick atomic-war satire Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Putin says no. Cut to a Russian screening room, with Putin and Stone watching a Russian-subtitled edition of Strangelove. Putin seems merely politely amused by the pointed satire. He also gets in the last word. Stone gives him a DVD of the film, but when Putin opens the DVD package, it’s empty. Showing the camera the empty DVD case, Putin smiles sourly and says, “Typical American gift.”
During one moment filmed in the midst of the 2016 U.S. election, Stone asks Putin his opinion of the candidates, saying that Putin’s comment would be influential: “If you said you didn’t like Trump, he would win,” says Stone. Putin remains mum.
Stone has been saying in interviews promoting the Showtime series that he agrees with President Trump about Russian influence on our election — that it is, to use Stone’s phrase, “all smoke and no fire.” He says he believes Putin “absolutely, 100 per cent” that Russia did not collude with anyone in the United States. Stone seems to base this on the fact that, as he asserted in an interview with the BBC, Putin never once bad-mouthed the U.S. to him. Is this naïve? Naïve is a quality one would never normally apply to Oliver Stone.
The Putin Interviews airs Monday through Thursday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.
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