Over the course of two years, director Oliver Stone sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin for what turned into hours upon hours of interviews. ‘The Putin Interviews’: Part 1 dives into the mind of one of the most controversial leaders in the world.
The Putin Interviews is slow, almost impossibly, and yet it’s hard to turn away. Revered director Oliver Stone (Platoon, The Doors, Wall Street) turns intrepid reporter in this series that tries to condense two years worth of sit-downs with Russian President Vladimir Putin into four hours. It’s clear from the wide range of the first episode that four hours isn’t enough time for Stone to say everything he wants to, but he’s making do with what he’s given. The first episode of the interview series gets straight down to business. Stone meets Putin, they shake hands, and they sit down.
The following hour is a painstaking interview through interpreters (Putin is given English subtitles) that starts with the leader’s childhood in Russia, and his coming of age in Leningrad. There’s not much here that isn’t already public information — Putin was a KGB agent, he was hand selected as prime minister by Boris Yeltsin, he led forces in Chechnya — but it’s the small details, the personal anecdotes and explanations behind each answer, that make this compelling. Stone has a problem here, though: he’s humanizing him. It’s as if he and Stone are old friends, laughing and reminiscing about times past. And that’s not okay.
While this interview series is thoughtful and unequivocally unbiased, it’s still jarring to hear a war criminal, someone who executes journalists and anyone who disagrees with him, speak fondly about his childhood. And Stone is encouraging it at every turn. It’s a series of playful conversations with sinister undertones. At one point the two, along with Putin’s interpreter, are strolling through St. George’s Hall at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, where the throne room and belongs of the former tsar are kept. Stone asks Putin flat out, “They say you want to be the tsar. This is all…they put magazine covers out. And you laugh, right?” Putin responds that it’s just talk.
Stone persists, saying that on a past Charlie Rose appearance, Putin said that he had the power to do anything he wanted, which made him sound an awful lot like a tsar. Putin again denies this, saying it was a misinterpretation. “Well then you should shoot the interpreter, because that’s what it sounded like,” Stone says, laughing. “Was it you?”, he says, pointing to the interpreter, who is not amused. Because Putin is someone who would absolutely shoot the interpreter if he felt like it.
Stone has a bizarre obliviousness about who he’s talking to. That becomes even more apparent when he begins discussing the 2016 presidential election race toward the end of the episode. Remember this interview took place before the general election. We were still in the debate stage. He badmouths Hillary Clinton to Putin, who takes it all in calmly.
“Issues like the environment, our alliances, in this election haven’t even been touched,” Stone says, bringing up the election on his own volition. “Everything in the election rhetoric has been get tough, be tougher, build up our military. And that comes from both sides, including Hillary Clinton, who’s most definitely neoconservative, a hawk, strong policies against Russia. She was certainly for Syria intervention.” Huh? So far, no mention of now-President Donald Trump. To be continued…
The Putin Interviews airs at 9:00pm ET on Showtime from June 12-15.
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