Last night, Showtime aired the first of a four-part series called The Putin Interviews, wherein controversial veteran director Oliver Stone conducts a series of extended interviews with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Though the interviews were conducted over a period of time, beginning well before the 2016 election, they’re being released at a time of incredibly high national tensions over the role that Russian interference may or may not have had in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
In Part 1 of the interview, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Stone is not there to challenge Putin on much of anything. He’s mostly there to facillitate Putin’s telling of his own story: his rise from meager beginnings, through to law school, then to the KGB and up through the ranks of government during the biggest period of change in Russia’s recent history, ultimately being elected president in 2000. Stone’s position, as it becomes clearer and clearer, is that Putin has not been given a fair shake, not by the American government nor by the American media. Stone proceeds to take sides with Putin against any number of Americans, from Charlie Rose to Hillary Clinton, who have made statements critical of Putin. It’s Stone’s position that Russia has been built up as a great foe that the American defense apparatus needs in order to justify spending.
The Putin Interviews will continue for three more parts, so it’s not entirely fair to say that Stone completely ignores issues like Russian aggression in Crimea or the Putin regime’s barbaric attitudes and policies towards LGBT citizens. Perhaps Stone presses Putin on these issues in further chapters. But for now, Stone spends a lot of time — like, a LOT of time — reading Putin’s resumé aloud, praising him for besting the oligarchs, and deeming him a “true son of Russia,” whatever exactly that is supposed to mean.
During his over-40-year career as a film director, Oliver Stone developed a reputation as an often paranoid antagonist of governments and systems. His films have been loudly critical of American capitalism (Wall Street) and American military action (Platoon); he laid the responsibility for the Kennedy assassination at the feet of the Military Industrial Complex in general and the CIA in particular (JFK), and he laid out the entire George W. Bush presidency out as a lunatic satire (W.). In short, Oliver Stone has never been shy of tilting wildly at the windmills of authority. But then there are his documentaries, which seem to show almost a different director altogether. He made a trio of films about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — 2003’s Comandante, 2004’s Looking for Fidel, and 2012’s Castro in Winter — which painted a respectful, almost affectionate portrait of the brutal Cuban dictator. His films South of the Border and Mi Amigo Hugo did similar work with controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. In all these documentaries, the questioning, antagonistic Stone was nowhere to be found, and what was left was a director using incredibly soft hands to mold complimentary images of incredibly controversial men in order to make his larger points about American interventionism.
Which isn’t to say that Stone doesn’t have his points about American interventionism, but The Putin Interviews are making it clear once again that Stone has one avenue he’s pursuing, and he doesn’t seem to care very much about any of its side streets. Putin is demonized by the American military machine, and thus he’s a misunderstood “son of Russia” looking to put his country back together after U.S.-backed boozebag Boris Yeltsin nearly drove it into the ground. If you watched any of Stone’s The Untold History of the United States — also for Showtime — this tone ought to feel familiar. In both, Stone finds his punching bags (Yeltsin, Harry Truman, Hillary Clinton) and delivers potshot after potshot at them, immediately undermining the seriousness with which he’s clearly taking his endeavor.
Oliver Stone has been a stunningly talented director over the course of his career. You have never needed to agree with his worldview to see that. JFK may well have been made from whole cloth, but it’s so meticulously crafted that its paranoid fantasies become part of its greatness. That Oliver Stone has seemingly left us, and what remains has apparently dedicated the rest of his life to trolling the U.S. via supporting its sketchiest and most dictatorial opponents. The Putin Interviews are merely the latest installments of this unfortunate trajectory.