When America sends its people to interview Vladimir Putin, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending an Anderson Cooper or a Christiane Amanpour, intrepid journalists well-versed in geopolitics and the art of the spiel. They’re sending people like Megyn Kelly, a race-baiter who rode the wave of one semi-challenging debate question all the way to a cushy gig at NBC News, or Oliver Stone, a revisionist history buff who’s spent the past few decades cozying up to dictators like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Putin.
Yes, in addition to qualifying Hitler and claiming the Jews run the media, Stone helmed the 2014 documentary Ukraine on Fire—a bizarre slice of Kremlin propaganda alleging that the CIA orchestrated the 2014 Ukrainian revolution (based on scant evidence), and featuring cameos from Viktor Yanukovych and Putin. If that weren’t enough, in September, the JFK filmmaker posited that the Democratic National Committee hack was an inside job and not, as 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded, the work of Russian agents. Stone’s The Putin Interviews, a new four-part series debuting on Showtime on June 12, should thus be viewed as nothing short of hero worship; the rough equivalent of a Twihard probing Robert Pattinson or Donald Trump interrogating a tacky gold chair.
The Putin Interviews, a documentary comprised of conversations with the Russian president that took place between July 2015 and February 2017, is clearly intended to humanize Putin and demonize America. In the first two parts provided to press, there are scenes of Putin feeding horses and strolling through lush gardens as string instruments sound; footage of the sexagenarian schooling men one-third of his age in hockey; and fawning Stone comments ranging from “You have a lot of discipline, Sir” to “You are a very lucky man” to “What do you bench?” OK, that last one I made up.
Stone not only fails to challenge Putin, but essentially cedes him the floor, allowing the cunning ex-KGB operative to spin more than the president’s toupee in a tornado. Putin denies Russia was the aggressor in virtually every global conflict, including the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. He champions Russia’s economy over that of the U.S., despite his GDP being a little more than half that of California’s. He even blames the Cuban Missile Crisis on the U.S.
At one point Stone, in an apparent effort to name-drop one of his movies, asks Putin: “Is Wall Street actively working to destroy the Russian economy in the interests of the United States?” He shrugs it off. “Do you think the National Security Agency had gone too far in its eavesdropping?” Of course he does.
Some of the director’s lame questions bear fruit in spite of themselves. When Stone asks Putin, “Do you ever have a bad day?” during a tour of the throne room, the Russian strongman giddily answers, “I’m not a woman so I don’t have bad days.” He then doubles down on the misogyny, explaining that, “There are certain natural cycles which men probably have as well, just less manifested. We are all human beings. It’s normal. But you should never lose control.”
A conversation about whether gays can serve in the military in Russia leads to the Stone question: “If you’re taking a shower in a submarine with a man and you know he’s gay, do they have a problem with that?”
Putin’s answer is not only homophobic, but completely bonkers. “Well, I prefer not to go to shower with him,” exclaims a cackling Putin. “Why provoke him? But you know, I’m a judo master and a SAMBO master as well. And I can tell you this, that as head of state today, I believe it’s my duty to uphold traditional values and family values. But why? Because same-sex marriages will not produce any children. God has decided, and we have to care about birth rates in our country. We have to reinforce families. But that doesn’t mean that there should be any persecutions against anyone.”
The lion’s share of The Putin Interviews’ B-roll consists of news clips from RT, the propaganda arm of the Kremlin, and pro-Russia graphics. Putin admits to never having seen Dr. Strangelove, and, in the first two episodes’ most surreal sequence, the two sit down to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire. “[Kubrick] foresaw some issues even from a technical point of view, things that make us think about real threats that exist,” Putin says in his mini-review. “The thing is that since that time, little has changed. The only difference is that the modern weapons systems have become more sophisticated, more complex. But this idea of a retaliatory weapon, and the inability to control such weapons systems, still hold true to this day. It has become even more difficult, even more dangerous.”
Stone and Putin chat in various locations throughout the doc, from the halls of the Kremlin to the great outdoors. In one exchange aboard Putin’s plane, he reveals his unvarnished thoughts on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“There is no longer an Eastern Bloc, no more Soviet Union. Therefore, why does NATO keep existing? My impression is that in order to justify its existence, NATO has a need of an external foe, there is a constant search for the foe, or some acts of provocation to name someone as an adversary,” says Putin.
“Nowadays, NATO is a mere instrument of foreign policy of the U.S. It has no allies, it has only vassals. Once a country becomes a NATO member, it is hard to resist the pressures of the U.S.,” he continues. “And all of a sudden any weapon system can be placed in this country. An anti-ballistic missile system, new military bases, and if need be, new offensive systems. And what are we supposed to do? In this case we have to take countermeasures. We have to aim our missile systems at facilities that are threatening us. The situation becomes more tense. Why are we so acutely responding to the expansion of NATO? Well, as a matter of fact, we understand the value or lack thereof, and the threat of this organization. But what we’re concerned about is the following: We are concerned by the practice of how decisions are taken. I know how decisions are taken there.”
Huddled inside a car with Putin behind the wheel—in what is without question the worst episode of Carpool Karaoke ever—they discuss the plight of whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who was granted asylum in Russia after leaking top-secret government documents revealing a complex web of surveillance conducted by the U.S. against its allies and own citizens. Putin claims that the U.S. refused to agree to a deal years back that “stipulated for a mutual extradition of criminals,” and since “Snowden didn’t violate any [Russian] law,” and since “the U.S. has never extradited any criminals to us who have sought asylum there,” they refused to extradite Snowden back to America.
While he doesn’t agree with what Snowden did, Putin refers to him as “courageous” several times and asserts, “Snowden is not a traitor. He didn’t betray the interests of his country. Nor did he transfer any information to any other country which would have been pernicious to his own country or to his own people. The only thing Snowden does he does publicly.”
The 2016 U.S. presidential election is briefly mentioned during a February 2016 chat within the halls of the Kremlin, with Putin maintaining that Russia is “going to be ready to work with whoever gets elected by the people of the United States.” When he adds, “I believe nothing is going to change no matter who gets elected,” he can’t help but unleash a knowing smirk.
Stone suggests that Putin could influence the U.S. election by endorsing a candidate, thereby causing his or her popularity to plummet. “Unlike many partners of ours, we never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries,” replies Putin, smiling wide. “That is one of the principles we stick to in our work.”
The Putin Interviews offer, first and foremost, a staggering display of mendacity on the part of both interviewer and interviewee. During a back and forth aboard his jet, Putin claims to have in his possession a letter from the CIA admitting that they provided technical support to the Chechens—including terrorist organizations—during the Second Chechen War. When Stone requests that he provide the letter, Putin responds, “I don’t think it would be appropriate. My words are enough.”
For Oliver Stone, they most certainly are.