During the fourth hour of The Putin Interviews, a four-hour Showtime documentary directed by Academy Award winning film director Oliver Stone, there is an extremely salient moment that encapsulates the dynamic of what is actually happening during these interviews with the Russian president. Stone tries to set up an entrance shot of Vladimir Putin coming into a room. He asks Putin to go all the way down the hall, and the man willingly complies. When ready for him to enter, consummate filmmaker Stone repeatedly shouts, “Action,” but Putin doesn’t come into the room.
Slightly frustrated, Stone enlists the assistance of interpreter Sergei Chudinov, who calls out to the president in Russian. A shot from another camera shows Putin grinning slightly and then looking at the camera and winking. After Stone shouts “Action” one more time, Putin comes strolling down the hallway baring two cups of coffee – one for Stone and one for him. The scene plays out perhaps not as Stone had hoped, but does more to establish the characterization of his protagonist than even the director could have imagined.
Yes, Putin is the protagonist of this film, and it is best to watch this astounding Showtime production as we would watch Stone’s Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or JFK – as a film that is a work of art. From the opening credits depicting the former Soviet Union turning into Russia, we get stark visuals accompanied by Jeff Beal’s powerful musical score, and that sends a signal of portent of what is to come. This feeling of being dropped into a different, perhaps even an unusual, world is more than upheld as Stone has made this a documentary that is a chronicle of a man and the country that he obviously loves.
Splicing in archival photos and news footage of various world events and leaders appropriate to the conversation of the moment, Stone more than keeps the four hours interesting. Of course, as a director Stone has always known the secret that keeps us watching – establish your protagonist and have the audience become invested in the action – just watch Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor in Platoon or Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July to understand what I mean. These characters are underdogs who have the deck stacked against them, but we root for them to succeed because we realize that the world around them is unfair and out of control.
Hard to imagine Vladimir Putin as a protagonist or an underdog? Let alone one we can root for? Perhaps the greatest strength of film is it cannot only change hearts but also minds. If you were expecting Putin to come across as an arrogant, ruthless dictator as he has been often depicted, you are in for a rude awakening. Either Putin is the best actor to be the president of a country since Ronald Reagan, or he is genuinely a person with feelings and opinions and they are worthwhile to understand and process.
What sets this film apart from some of Stone’s greatest works is that Stone himself is a character in this film. Clutching his yellow legal pad of notes, looking a bit rumpled at times like Detective Columbo, Stone huffs and sometimes puffs as he tries to make sense of the low whispering voice of Chudinov, who talks lowly as Putin answers questions in order to convey a translation to keep things moving. Credit should be given to this young man for his tenacity in a difficult situation. However, it is Stone’s facial expressions and reactions to Putin that are most telling – we get a sense of exasperation and at times admiration – but we must remember that Stone’s day job is director and interviewing may not be his greatest strength, but he manages to push and prod but as respectfully as possible.
I have heard some complaints that Stone did not ask Putin difficult questions about human rights violations, Ukraine, Crimea, lack of viable opposition candidates during his long reign (Putin has been in office since Bill Clinton’s presidency), and treatment of the gay community in Russia. Stone does touch on some of these things, but Putin is masterful in his manner of formulating a quick (and some would say elusive) response.
When asked about gays in the military, Putin somehow veers into a story about not showering with a guy on a submarine – even though he is a judo master and implies he can protect himself. The bizarre response (perhaps something is lost in translation or not) borders on homophobic, but then Putin tries to save himself by saying, “We have to reinforce family values. But that doesn’t mean there should be persecutions of anyone.” Stone lets this go – as he does other things that people might find a particular weakness of the interviewer – but it does seem as if Putin feels he is coming off well even when he does not.
These interviews were conducted over a two-year period (June 2015 – February 2017) – in the Kremlin, Putin’s plane, at a hockey game, in a car with Putin driving, and outdoor locations. While one could expect a film interview to be rather static, Stone manages to keep things flowing and Putin seems a willing participant in the choreography throughout. Even when Stone mentions the film Dr. Strangelove and Putin indicates no familiarity with the work, the scene shifts to Stone and Putin actually watching the film. Although it is hard to judge Putin’s reaction to the movie (his expression changes very little throughout four hours), the fact that he is willing to sit through the film to understand Stone’s feelings about the Cold War says more about his personality than some of us might be willing to admit.
When Stone attends a hockey game where Putin will be a player, Stone playfully asks Putin if the opponents are going to play hard against him and even check him. Putin seems amazed by this question and wonders why the other players wouldn’t treat him as just another guy – maybe because they could end up cracking boulders in Siberia? We do get the character development Stone (and I’m sure the clever Putin) intends – hey, the president is just one of the guys.
Occasionally, Putin’s cleverness gets him in trouble. When Stone asks him if he ever has bad days, Putin dryly replies, “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.” Stone immediately calls him out for insulting “50 percent of the American public,” but Putin seems unruffled. He responds, “I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things.” Honesty? Without a doubt, but concerning nonetheless for its implications for women living in Russia, but once again Stone lets it go.
Despite these stumbles, there is a feeling that Putin is human and far from the monster people like Senator John McCain have painted him to be. Even when Stone brings up the senator from Arizona and the derogatory things he has said about Putin, the Russian leader reveals that he likes McCain and respects him for being a war hero and dedicated to his country. It is not the answer we are expecting, and most of the interview seems to be full of surprises as to how Putin reacts to events in the U.S.A. and around the world.
The interview gets most interesting to me when Stone asks Putin about his personal life. Putin talks fondly about his parents and seems to hold them in high regard, but the most moving moment is when Putin discusses his children and his grandchildren. Paternal pride gleams in his eyes, and it is obvious that he loves them and wants the world to be safe for them. I came away from these moments thinking not only that this man is no monster, but that he seems like he wants his progeny to have a bright future, so it appears even more unlikely that he wants his country to have any kind of war that would threaten that possibility.
Sitting back and evaluating the four hours of interviews, my impression is that Putin is a complicated man to understand but also someone who speaks bluntly and honestly. Putin also comes across as intelligent, cunning, and acutely aware of the impact interviews with someone like Oliver Stone will have on the American public. Even though he knows he will always have his critics, Putin seems to be betting that these interviews will open the American people’s eyes and make them rethink their feelings about him.
I feel that these four hours are essential for their historical significance as well as for what is happening in the world today. Imagine if Harry Truman had four hours of an interview with Josef Stalin and what a valuable tool that would have been. I am assuming that everyone in Washington will be studying these interviews for a long time to come, and if they are not they should be.
Oliver Stone has given us a memorable documentary film experience that, though highly orchestrated and carefully edited, should be appreciated as a work of art right up there with his greatest works like Platoon and JFK. In doing so he has also opened a window into the mind of one of the most important people on the world stage. I highly recommend peering through that window for an experience that is as enjoyable as it is unforgettable.
*For information about The Putin Interviews episode times click here.