It was a match made in heaven. Oliver Stone, once a fine film director and now a kind of benign crackpot student of macho posturing in politics. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, macho as all get-out and not giving a rodent's posterior what anyone outside of Russia thinks of him.
They met many times. Stone conducted a dozen interviews with Putin between July, 2015, and February of this year. The result will air as a four-night miniseries, The Putin Interviews, starting June 12 on Showtime and on Crave TV in Canada. The first two hours were released to select media in advance and they are bizarre.
First, they are not really interviews. Stone is not a journalist. He's a guy with questions. And while he might appear as a sycophant who nods and smiles as Putin tells him what it means it be tough, Stone manages something remarkable – he turns Putin into a chatty Cathy who will talk your ears off about everything that Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin got wrong.
That is in fact the key to everything in the rambling conversation Stone has with Putin. The Russian President is blithe about many things. No, he's not homophobic. But he wouldn't like to share a shower with a gay man. Stone is excruciatingly deferential, often calling Putin "sir." When he asks Putin if he's having a bad day, Putin smirks and says, "I am not a woman, so I don't have bad days. I am not trying to insult anyone. That's just the nature of things. There are certain natural cycles."
That's one of the gotcha moments that some reviewers will offer as the takeaway from those first two hours of this mind-boggling journey with Putin. But that's a mistake. What unfolds is hours of cold rancour from a very angry man. You need to watch closely, not just listen to Putin's practised, arch macho assertions. There are times when you can see he's concentrating hard and there's a little vein throbbing at the side of his head. He's one ticked-off dude.
Mainly, those truly revealing moments occur when Putin takes Stone through his version of recent Russian history – specifically the disaster of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years. The Soviet Union destroyed and all that ensued makes him livid with anger – people left without jobs, without food. The West, especially the United States, tricked Russia when it was weak. Everybody took advantage. All those former Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe, they were tricked into independence and into joining NATO. For what? For money and promises they foolishly believed.
On the evidence of the first two hours, Putin is perfectly happy to portray himself as the manly chap so often mocked by late-night TV hosts in the United States. He likes working out, playing hockey and teaching boys to play hockey with a certain kind of toughness. It's just who he is. Watching him perform these rituals with Oliver Stone, we are reminded that nothing Vladimir Putin does is meant for the audiences who mock him in the West. It is meant for those Russians who adore him.
Eventually, of course, the chatter turns and focuses on the alleged role Russia played in America's 2016 presidential election – hacking and probing and manipulating this and that, willy-nilly. This isn't 60 Minutes, so Stone isn't going to interrogate Putin. Stone suggests that Putin could leverage things just by endorsing or condemning a candidate. "Unlike many partners of ours, we never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries," Putin responds calmly. "That is one of the principles we stick to in our work."
One can watch this surreal series with a healthy yeah-right attitude. Certainly the first two hours never seem to go anywhere except onward to the next photo-op in which Putin looks manly and in charge. But there's more going on. Putin has some rational, angry conviction – Russia's been ripped off and he's intent on getting revenge. He's cool about it, mind you. He doesn't assert anything on Twitter. That's for losers and Putin has no intention of being a loser. Oliver Stone thinks he's a winner already.