There’s lots of flattery but little scepticism in the film-maker’s Vladimir Putin interviews
In one revealing section, Stone invites Vladimir Putin on a movie date. He asks the Russian president if he’s ever seen Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Putin says he hasn’t, so Stone gets him to watch the 1964 nuclear war satire in a conference room: a little Nyetflix-and-chill.
Stone is animated, laughing and dropping bits of trivia. Putin sits still, smiling thinly. If you’ve ever seen a movie with your cineaste friend who really needs you to love it as much as he does, you know this dynamic.
Putin offers a few unenthusiastic words of praise. But what is he really feeling? Bemusement? Discomfort? Contempt? Does he see Stone as a journalist, an ally or a fool?
It’s hard to tell. But the awkward interlude captures the – to borrow a Strangelove word – essence of The Putin Interviews, and what the two men seem to want from the production.
The screening of the film-documentary – the remaining parts will be shown over the next three nights on Showtime in the US – is timely because of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But Stone has a longer game in mind.
He may not see a hero in Putin, but he uses his perspective to challenge neoconservative American triumphalism about the Cold War and its aftermath. (As Donald Trump says in a line heard early on, “You think our country’s so innocent?”)
Putin, meanwhile, plays the tough-but-fair leader, beset by the calumny of hypocritical Westerners. The cult of Putin is very much about physicality, and there’s plenty on display: He suits up for a hockey scrimmage, does strength-training workouts, talks martial arts.
In the interviews, Putin has the casual charm of an executive who knows that he could always press a button and release the hounds.
The interviews are solicitous, even obsequious, but sometimes revealing anyway. A firm interview isn’t automatically effective, as was in evidence during the premiere of Megyn Kelly’s NBC news magazine last Sunday. Kelly peppered Putin with the kind of direct, simple questions about whether Russia fiddled with the election that a guilty or innocent man would deny exactly the same way.
Stone’s view from the left is a break from the usual news media vantages on Russia, either tough-talk centrism or the defences of Putin enablers-come-lately in the conservative media. But it is embarrassingly generous. Stone gives Putin a platform for flattering versions of his government’s aggression in Ukraine; treatment of opposition parties; and the sheltering of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower. (Stone directed a 2016 biopic on him.)
Stone, the good cop, coaxes his subject into some unguarded remarks. He compliments Putin’s calm, asking: “Do you ever have a bad day?” The answer: “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.”
Later, discussing the persecution of gay people in Russia – Putin denies there is any – Stone asks whether a gay sailor could shower with a straight one. “I prefer not to go to the shower with him,” Putin says. “Why provoke him?” He laughs. Then he notes that he is an expert in judo.
The interviews took place between July 2015 and February, and the first half, which Showtime provided for review, focuses on events before the US Presidential election. It seems driven, like everything in 2015 and 2016, by the assumption that the “hawk” Hillary Clinton would become the next president.
It will be interesting to see if the election results affect the later interviews. There’s a hint at the end of the second hour. In February 2016, Stone brings up the American primaries, repeatedly asking Putin his opinion of Bernie Sanders, whom Stone supported.
He quips that Putin could influence the vote by endorsing a candidate, whose poll numbers would then drop. “We never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries,” says Putin.
The Putin Interviews is neither the last or best word on Russia, but it makes a point. Never assume that history is over. – (New York Times Service)