Enjoying a level of access that the average academic would poison a foreign spy and his daughter for, Stone shows us Vladimir Putin as the master politician in total control of himself and his brand. The Putin Interviews is based on a handful of conversations with the Russian leader spaced over two years. It was released in 2017 as four (hour-long) episodes, and is a compelling mixture of toe-curling awkwardness and chilling supervillainy. Here are the highlights:
A Typical American Gift
Stone screens Dr Strangelove and Putin spends the whole movie looking bored and uncomfortable. His terrifying response to the ending is just a straight-faced admission that it’s getting harder, not easier, to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Good to know. Stone leaves the DVD case (which is empty) and Putin jokes that it’s “a typical American gift”.
You Should Never Lose Control
Despite some challenging questions, Putin is always disturbingly calm. “I’m not a woman so I don’t have bad days” he laughs, but the smile fades as he adds in earnest, “you should never lose control”. And control is definitely what he has. Micro-managing Russian affairs, Putin receives video call updates from far-flung underlings and confidently issues them with streams of orders.
NATO Needs an External Foe
Putin also, somewhat predictably, conflates real and imagined American transgressions, criticising the US for facilitating Islamic terrorism; destabilizing the Middle East; expanding NATO threateningly eastwards; supporting “radical nationalists” in Ukraine; interfering in the 2000 and 2012 Russian elections; surrounding Russia with missile threats; and fostering an imperialistic American mentality that is counterproductive on the world stage. From this perspective, all Russian “countermeasures” seem perfectly reasonable, with Putin patiently explaining how, “to justify its existence, NATO needs an external foe”. There’s some merit in that argument, but separating the facts from the propaganda would take more patience than I possess.
There Were No Hens in the House
Asked if there is a secret cyber war going on, Putin’s eyes twinkle as he says, “maybe when there is action there is always a counteraction”. Stone remarks that he’s acting guilty – like a fox caught in the hen house – and Putin’s reply is pure bond villain wit: “There were no hens in the house unfortunately”.
A Matter of Human Personnel
In fact, the Russian leader can’t resist hinting at his devious influence. When Stone asks Putin whether the FBI investigation will hurt relations with Trump, Putin tries to suppress his smirk while saying that’s “a matter of human personnel”. This was in February 2017, around the time (we now know) that President Trump pressured James Comey to drop the FBI’s collusion investigation. Boom.
He Who is Destined to Hang…
After five assassination attempts, Putin is also convinced he’s fated for a particular mission, quoting a Russian proverb that “he who is destined to hang will not drown”. Fidel Castro also gave Putin his top tip for staying alive: always take personal charge of your security detail. Good advice.
He Should Have Simply Resigned
On the subject of surveillance, Putin asserts rather piously that Russia does not act as unscrupulously as the United States, but then jokes that this is only due to limited resources: Russia “would be just as bad as the US” if armed with equal capabilities. Putin continues this self-deprecating but menacing humour into conversations about John Snowden, sighing in boredom over the whistle-blower’s preoccupation with human rights, and judging that “he should have simply resigned” if he was dissatisfied with his job. Putin admits that Snowden only remains in Moscow because the Obama administration refused to extradite similarly high profile detractors of the Russian state. Phew.
You Are Going to Suffer
Basically, throughout all of Stone’s interviews, Vladimir Putin manages to smile, appear perfectly reasonable and calm, and yet still be deeply unsettling. Oliver Stone gives Putin a platform to present a very favourable image, but the Russian leader can’t help giving viewers the heeby jeebies. He even poses a disturbing question to end the film: “Have you ever been beaten?” Putin asks Stone, “because you are going to suffer for what you are doing.” Not weird at all Vlad.