What’s the Russian equivalent of Kool-Aid? Whatever it is, it’s definitely red – and Oliver Stone has eagerly drunk it down. The trailers for The Putin Interviews, Showtime’s four-part series documenting a series of conversations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Stone, would have you believe that you’re going to hear some pretty hard-hitting stuff as the autocrat and the filmmaker face off, Frost-Nixon style. What we got instead was a series of softballs lobbed lovingly in the direction of one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the world. Except for a few moments, Stone seems serenely unconcerned with anything beyond flattering his subject – and engaging in some supremely one-sided exchanges about history and policy along the way.
The Putin Interviews are drawn from 30-plus hours of Q&A sessions that Stone conducted with Putin between July 2015, when Obama was still firmly ensconced in the White House, and February 2017, when America was seriously grappling with the question of how much Russia had interfered in the U.S. election. The conversations take place in locales ranging from the Kremlin to Sochi to, bizarrely, a Moscow hockey stadium. In the course of the show’s four-hour span, the two men discuss the past (the fall of the Soviet Union and Putin’s rise to power), the present (the conflict in Syria, Putin’s relationship with Obama) and the future (Putin’s paranoia about a hypothetical NATO takeover).
Through it all, the leader is as calm, collected and confident as a dragon seated atop his pile of gold – knowing that he holds all the power in this exchange, and supremely unconcerned. The former KGB agent-turned-head of state comes off as intelligent, rational and well-spoken, which is precisely what makes The Putin Interviews so dangerous. Since Stone more often than not takes him at his word, the politician’s proclamations sound like unassailable facts – regardless of whether they actually are. It’s telling that the series is set to air on Russia’s state-run Channel One in its entirety later this month.
Whether or not Stone set out to make a puff piece on the Russian president, one who has held power for 16 years and counting, a puff piece he has indeed made. In an appearance on The Late Show on Monday night, Stone sang the praises of Putin, to the point where a taken-aback Stephen Colbert asked, “Anything negative that you found? Anything? Or does he have your dog in a cage someplace?”
Here are 10 of the most baffling, strange and frankly unsettling revelations that came out of Stone’s too-long, too-soft docuseries – because unless you have a thing for subtle autocratic propaganda, you definitely shouldn’t subject yourself to watching it.
1. Flattery Will Get You … No Information
Stone – who has also interviewed the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez – has been granted unprecedented access to Putin, but to what end? As they stroll through the hallways of the Kremlin or drive down winding country roads (with an omnipresent translator mediating the exchange), the director projects the obsequious air of a fan who gets to hang out with one of his favorite celebrities. “You are an excellent CEO, and Russia is your company,” Stone gushes. He enthuses about “the marching, the precision, the pride” at a Victory Day Parade and tells Putin that he’s “a true son of Russia.” The president, for his part, eats it up – and it’s deeply unpleasant to watch. At the very end of Part 4, Stone says any flack he’ll get for these interviews is “worth it if it brings more peace and consciousness to the world.” It’s a pretty big stretch to say that giving this borderline despot the chance to preen and pontificate for the cameras accomplishes anything like raising consciousness. But hey, whatever Stone needs to tell himself to sleep at night.
2. Putin’s Really, Really Into Fitness
The two things that Putin invariably brings up out of nowhere: how much he hates NATO; and how much he loves Judo. He says he’s been practicing the discipline since he was 13, and he has a statue of the founder in a place of privilege in his extensive private sports facility, which he proudly shows off to Stone. He claims that Judo informs his actions in politics, saying that he favors flexibility and sometimes giving in to others “if that is the way leading to victory.” But perhaps the oddest set piece of the series is when Stone comes to watch him play hockey. “You look colorful. Mighty Mouse. No, that’s cool,” says the fanboy when Putin appears in full scrimmage gear. “When I get off the ice, I feel very big,” Putin bizarrely replies. Should we bring you boys some Gatorades, or …?
3. Women to the Sidelines
It’s impossible not to notice that in four hours’ worth of footage, there are almost no women who ever make an appearance – even in the background – in Putin’s insular, patriarchal world. (The exception is Stone’s wife, Sun-jun Jung, who’s an occasional and silent presence; and cutaway clips of Hillary Clinton, whom Stone repeatedly and inexplicably calls a neoconservative.) But the ladies do get a mention in one of the few jokes that the po-faced Putin ever makes: When Stone asks him if he ever has “bad days,” the president replies, “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.” “There you go,” Stone responds with a chuckle. “Now you’re gonna insult 50 percent of the American public. The way they’re gonna take it.” “I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things,” Putin replies. Did we stumble into an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale?
4. The Hypothetical NATO Map of Doom
Putin talks about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the way Ahab talks about Moby-Dick: He’s obsessively certain that it’s out to get him. Again and again, the president returns to the idea that NATO is a “mere instrument” of U.S. policies, and that its other members are “vassals” who exist to allow military installations to be placed in their country. While discussing George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, Putin speculates wildly about NATO member states (many of them former Soviet satellites) building up their defenses and encircling his country. A dire map graphic follows him down the rabbit hole, showing an area from Eastern Europe to Alaska bristling with missiles and warships all pointed at Russia. Whether or not his paranoia is justified, it’s clear that the Cold War never really ended for this guy.
5. Stanley Kubrick Movie Date Night
Stone can’t stop talking about movies (often, cringingly, his own Snowden), a strategy that never connects with Putin, who couldn’t give a fig about pop culture. In one of the series’ most surreal sequences, he asks the president if he’s ever watched Dr. Strangelove, which of course he hasn’t. “Oh, you must see it, really. It’s well worth it. It’s a classic,” Stone opines. Cut to the pair of them watching the film in question in some vast, echoing room in the Kremlin, the filmmaker glancing at Putin the way you do when you’re showing your friend a YouTube video you think is hilarious yet, for some reason, they just aren’t laughing. “There are certain things in this film that indeed make us think, despite the fact that everything you see onscreen is make-believe,” Putin says stiffly, moments after Major Kong rides the bomb down to annihilation. Even Kubrick couldn’t have written a moment like this.
6. It’s Totally Cool to Be Gay in Russia, Right?
It isn’t until the second episode that Stone raises the specter of one of Russia’s most persistent human rights problems: Its treatment of its LGBTQ citizens. According to Putin, Russia doesn’t engage in “any restrictions, any persecutions” of homosexuals, which is demonstrably untrue: A sweeping anti-gay law that Putin signed in 2013 places restrictions on distributing LGBTQ “propaganda” to minors, an act vaguely defined enough to allow for sweeping discrimination. Though he does eventually acknowledge the existence of this law, Putin’s defense is that hey, at least it’s not as bad as the death penalty. Um, pretty low bar? He insists that it’s a matter of holding up “traditional values” and birth rates, because “God has decided.” When Stone asks if Putin would be comfortable sharing a shower with a gay man in a military submarine, the president laughs and says: “Well, I prefer not take a shower with him. Why provoke him? But you know, I’m a Judo master and a SAMBO master as well.” Nope, no homophobia to see here. Move along.
7. How Many Offices Does One Man Need?
If you’re Vladimir Putin, the answer is apparently three, all right next to each other, somewhere inside the vast gold-flecked maze of the Kremlin. “It used to be bigger during the Soviet era,” the president says of Office Number One, which used to belong to Joseph Stalin. He then proceeds to lead the camera crew through two adjacent offices, one stuffed with framed prints leaning against the wall and another with two desks scrunched up side by side. Then it’s off to the situation room, where Stone sits back to watch what seem to be some highly staged video calls with his subordinates. “At a set time, we will take further steps to accomplish this mission,” a general calling from Syria announces from the screen. The whole tour seems designed as a performative demonstration of Putin’s power, and the only one who doesn’t seem to get that it’s all for show is Stone.
8. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Part 2
In April 2016, the international community was briefly alarmed when a pair of Russian jets buzzed low over an American destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, in the Baltic Sea north of Russia. The show of aggression was a classic Cold War move, but a rare and alarming one in the modern age. The incident blew over after the ship turned around, but according to Putin, the Russian military was “brought to the brink.” In a chillingly casual tone, the president says that missiles could have been trained on the Donald Cook, because “our commanders always have the authorization to use any means for the defense of the Russian Federation.” When Stone is taken aback by this, Putin replies, “Who is trying to provoke whom?” Never mind that the destroyer was in international waters at the time.
9. What Election Hacking? [Whistles Innocently]
In their final interview, held in February of this year, Stone asks Putin why he decided to hack the election. “We did not hack the election at all,” he declares. He goes on to says that the “unrecognized hackers” who broke into the DNC’s computer network “have brought to light the problems that existed, but they didn’t tell any lies.” And anyway, “Hackers are not the ones to blame. These are internal problems of the United States.” Putin doggedly, brazenly refuses to admit to what the intelligence community has all but agreed to be true, but he gives himself away: As he dodges Stone’s questions, his usually calm demeanor gives way to nervous finger-drumming and lowered glances. There was no way he was ever going to admit to anything here, but watching the president’s usually controlled body language betray him was perhaps the one true revelatory moment of this series.
10. Putin Thinks Stalin Was, Y’know, Pretty Okay
Putin is a consummate politician, offering praise and condemnation in equal measure for Russian and world leaders past. But you’d think the one guy he wouldn’t want to throw his hat in for – given how often Putin is accused of being more dictator than president – is Joseph Stalin. Remember that guy, the Soviet despot who ruled with an iron fist and caused the deaths of untold millions? According to Putin, Stalin was just “a product of his era,” and his merits outweigh his faults. “You can try to demonize him however much you like. We try to talk about his merits in achieving victory over fascism.” He briefly mentions all the abundant human atrocities, before concluding, “I think the overwhelming majority of citizens of the former Soviet Union admired him.” Oh, good.