“I would have voted for Le Pen in a second,” Oliver Stone recently told me. He could have. “I have a French passport—my mother was French.” There’s a scene of déjà vu in the Putin Interviews, premiering Monday, June 12 on Showtime in four, one-hour daily installments, where the Russian premier makes a misogynistic remark to Stone who, trying his best Billy Bush, laughs and tells Putin he just has lost half of the American population. “Do you ever have a bad day?” Stone asks Putin. “No, I’m not a woman,” Putin says.
So much could be written about the dual purpose of the body of the king. Stone, who is diminutive in person, towers over Putin in the documentary. It is fair to conclude that, for all his monumentality, Putin is quite short. In the art of politics these two attributes are not necessarily mutually exclusive; but in the life of a macho, they make you look like a joke.
“How’s the swinging life?” Stone asked me.
“I’m not into that shit,” I told him.
“I heard you made condescending comments about someone who had many mistresses,” he said, referring to someone we both know. Later, he told me, “I question your virtue barometer on the subject. Someone is not an asshole because he has three girlfriends.”
In the Putin Interviews, a homophobic comment by Putin is met with giggles. Stone asks Putin if a straight sailor in the VМFRF could take a shower with a gay one. “I would rather not shower with him,” Putin answers. “Why provoke him?” Were the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic answers also left on the editing room floor? We see Putin in his dacha, and he seems very proud to have his own personal place of worship. Christianity played a very important role in the rise of the Front National in France and strangely enough the massive rallies of support following the terrorist attack on the Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo were mainly deprived of minorities and located in parts of France that had lost the grip of Catholicism.
“Putin bankrolled many neo-Nazi parties in Europe,” I told Stephen Cohen, one of the foremost Russia analysts in the world—or at least its Occidental part.
“Stop it with the use of these words, you don’t know what Nazism means,” he answered abruptly.
“Le Pen, who Trump supported, said a month ago said that the French state didn’t help the Nazis deport hundreds of thousands of Jews. That’s not a neo-Nazi comment?” I asked him.
“Part of her discourse is Islamophobic,” he retorted. “There’s no Islamophobia in Putin’s talk. It is unfortunate that he received Le Pen at the Kremlin during the French presidential campaign though, but she was the only one of the candidates who flew to Moscow.”
“Wasn’t the war in Chechnya violently Islamophobic? It was a war of attrition, a crime against humanity,” I said.
“It certainly wasn’t,” Cohen retorted. “Yes, Putin destroyed Grozny, but Russia has been fighting in Chechnya since Tolstoy. The war did create Islamophobia in Russia, but Putin is nothing of the kind. He built the biggest mosque in Moscow.”
“Isn’t there a gay pogrom going on in Chechnya condoned by Moscow’s puppet, this insane Kadyrov?” I asked.
“Putin is trying to rein him in, and this mass killing of gays is being investigated as we speak. There are questions regarding its veracity,” he answered.
In the eyes of Oliver Stone, “Putin is a smart man…a soft man, he thinks.”
And indeed, we see them high-fiving at a hockey game, driving a car and sitting next to each other having a Blockbuster night, watching Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a film about a lunatic with his fingers on the atomic bomb button—so it must be true. Putin finds the Kubrick film pretty accurate, proving once again that we have entered the age of epistemology. “We must respect the voice of the people and the sovereignty of states” would have been a scary sentence had it been uttered by Peter Sellers, but in Putin’s mouth, since he clung to power thanks to massive voter frauds and almost started WWIII in Georgia and Ukraine, it actually becomes funny- mainly because Stone enables him.
As Stone explains, at least part of the motivation in producing thePutin Interviews was to provide the body politic an opportunity to assess Putin outside the lorgnette oft-applied, whether intentionally or otherwise, by Western journalists. “The rare times he’s interviewed in the West, they always dub him, like on Charlie Rose, with the worst actor they can get, a kind of angry bulldog kind of voice.”
“And usually with the worst translation,” I told him.
In totality, Stone’s new documentary is ultimately a vanity project, an exercise in political science tourism. Indeed, had Stone set out to fluffer the courtisants in the eastern-corridor-verified-industry, those who believe their Times and Post apps are their personalized PDBs and get into levitating daily trances onboard the Acela because an unwashed is in the White House, he wouldn’t have done it any differently. How could he? He brought with him to Moscow a copy of this epitome of profundity that is Foreign Affairs to introduce the “other side” in the discussion, whatever that is.
Power produces Knowledge, they are both interrelated, Michel Foucault said. The sentiment might, in part, explain why the best part of Oliver Stone’s Putin Interviews is actually an answer Putin gave to Megyn Kelly on NBC’s Sunday With Megyn Kelly regarding the oppression of dissent in Russia:
“Our police don’t use clubs or tear gas like yours does in the States,” an obviously annoyed Putin says. “Look at what happened to the Occupy movement—where are they now? They were beaten, infiltrated and disbanded by your intelligence services.”
We never saw this exchange on NBC because Kelly’s producers left it on the editing floor, along with the segment in which Putin admonishes Kelly at the SPIEF for not having read the Paris Climate Agreement. But, Russians saw it. The unedited version of the interview was shown on primetime Russian state TV. Certainly, Kelly didn’t expect Putin to answer, “Yes, here we kill our opponents.” All she wanted was passing her pledge and showing the frats back in New York that she too belonged in the “boys’ club”. However, Putin’s answer is indicative of how out of touch the Russian leader is. He could have lobbed a vicious attack on the States by citing the killings of unarmed blacks by cops, yet inexplicably opted for “Occupy”. While the protests did suffer from CoIntelpro, its relevance to history might ultimately have more to do with Hillary Clinton’s defeat than with its infiltration and demise that was mainly self-inflicted.
As sickening as the Putin Interviews may be, Stone’s Untold History of the United States—also produced for Showtime but this time written with the historian Peter Kuznick—is actually the best documentary of these last years. Forget the Koch brothers: The Dulles were the true matrix of the American evil empire, and the series for the first time exposed an American audience to the kind of history that will never be written in text books mainly published out of Texas.
If Putin is really competing in the Best Tyrant category, he has a lot of catching up to do as the U.S. has been in the tyranny business for more than a century. And he’s not even good at it if one considers what happened with Margvelashvili and Yushchenko. When the U.S. made a move on Mosaddegh or Allende, they were gone, none of this half-deposed or half-poisoned razzmatazz.
It is of course easier for the Cold War hacks, washed up neo-cons and deep-state sycophants in D.C. who never read Antonio Gramsci to believe that Comey, Wikileaks and the Kremlin brought down the American democratic system.
As our dialogue continued, it became increasingly clear that certain recent endeavors, and some of the criticisms borne therefrom, have taken their toll on Stone, who admitted that his cinematic projects of recent vintage left him feeling “older now, and…tired,” Snowden, another Stone romp in Russia, in particular. “Movies are so hard to make now, they’re so hard to make” Stone related. “[Snowden] was a very difficult film. I’ve never been in that [position] as a director. I’ve always had the respect of my actors.” Yet Snowden, and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt presented novel obstacles for the filmmaker. “[T]he moment [Gordon-Levitt] met Ed, he made him an icon,” Stone said. “For members of that same generation, Snowden is a hero. Once you start to get into the mindset, that you’re playing someone who’s an icon, you can get locked-up, scared to take any risks. I had many risks I wanted [Gordon-Levitt] to take, but he couldn’t do it.” “If I survive this,” Stone contemplates, “I’d like to do some television.”
The fact that Snowden was a right-wing ideologue who didn’t believe the elderly should get their Social Security checks was not mentioned in Snowden, probably because the young left has embraced him as their newfound hero after Obama had become the fly on the soy milk and deported one too many Hispanics. “Putin’s view on Snowden are mind-blowing,” Stone told me.
Like when Putin tells Stone, “I’m against what Snowden did.”
It is pretty remarkable that when the civil war in Ukraine broke, very few news organizations reported on the West’s support of neo-Nazi groups in Kiev and the push to include Ukraine in NATO, which Putin rightly saw as crossing a red line.
“Putin is not a nationalist,” Stephen Cohen, a good friend of Stone, told me. “Oliver showed me the Putin Interviews. He should have asked Putin about Alexei Navalny. He didn’t—that’s too bad. He doesn’t know about Navalny, and that’s unfortunate because Navalny is the real nationalist in Russia right now, not Putin.” Never mind the anti-fascist Putinjugend…
“Why didn’t you bring Cohen with you to Moscow?” I asked Stone.
“Nah,” he said. “Stephen is smart, very smart, but for something like this, he’s too academic…you know, what I’m doing here is something more popular, [casting a wider appeal].” A frat bro.
When Putin took power at the beginning of the century, he really saw himself as a true European. Contrary to what the Times says, with its daily shameless promise to deliver the Truth, he didn’t start out by only enriching himself and his cronies. It was only after he tried to tax the oil oligarchs that he realized it was either him or them. The same happened with world leaders who never accepted him as one of their peers. Europe’s rotten patricians never got over the death of the tsar, and since 1917, they see everything coming from beyond the Ural as tacky even if the Russians saved Europe in WWII. The breaking point happened in 2011 in Libya when Putin felt betrayed after having been promised that Gaddafi would not be bombed out.
For his part, Stone takes a pragmatic view in his ideology regarding the West’s fragmented relationship with Russia. “I grew up in the 50s. My father was very anti-Russia, very republican, very conservative. All we had was the menu, this diet. It was everywhere: in the schools, Russians are invading Europe…I’d hear nothing but this crap, and people ate it up.” To Stone, those who would blindly follow the edicts of an informational dietary regimen of this nature without independently evaluating its authenticity, “are all stupid.”
There is no question that America must engage Russia before the prospects of a nuclear catastrophe become unavoidable; with or without Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t love Gordon-Levitt in that role,” I posited, wondering whether, with the benefit of hindsight, Stone might have made a different choice with the individual responsible for actualizing his artistic vision for the film.
“I didn’t like him either. That’s my fault,” Stone told me. “He was a cold guy. In retrospect, I should have gone with an emotional actor.”
There’s a gentle touch emanating from Stone, whose humanistic approach to life is on constant display throughout the Putin Interviews; but the fact that he can seamlessly transition from his musings on Putin to a Third Rock from the Sun actor in the same breath might be why the Putin Interviews prove such a bloody disaster.
It is evident by now that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lied to us—Gone With The Wind doesn’t exist. Stone is fascinated by hard power, until now mainly from the left with Castro and Chavez. And while that is true, it is soft power that makes Stone come to life. Putin possesses all the softness one might find in the banality of evil; in the mental short-man at the gym, bench-pressing with a thousand-mile stare; in the bureaucrat ready to slam the doors of the train-of-no-return in your grandmother’s face. In this instance, the softness finds its home in a bureaucrat, the benefactor of a murderous Pretorian guard awaiting the guidance of his velvet touch, using Chechnya as a laboratory of horrors.
Foucault warned against revolutionaries who fight Power with the only intent to take it. It must be hard to live in Hollywood, where every New Yorker article is your next sure-bet script; I experienced as much myself last year. What New York never told L.A.— because why break the simulacra of suspension of disbelief cycle?—is that these articles are written, ready-made to be shot.
“I love the way you write articles. You’re like a knife,” Stone told me, “you’re dangerous.” So too, might be the Putin Interviews.
This article has been amended from the original.