'The Putin Interviews': TV Review

Stone isn't Russian to get to a payoff.
6/12/2017

Oliver Stone's four-hour Showtime interview with Vladimir Putin begins with two hours of well-shot foundation-laying, but no Donald Trump dirt.

Demure and coquettish are not words typically associated with bombastic Oscar-winning director and frequent political firebrand Oliver Stone, but when it comes to the first two hours of Showtime's The Putin Interviews, that's exactly what he is.

The Putin Interviews is being presented as a four-hour, four-night event starting Monday. Stone conducted more than 30 hours of interviews with Vladimir Putin between July 2015 and February 2017 and, like any good storyteller, he knows exactly what audiences are clamoring for. Since this isn't your basic packaged newsmagazine Megyn Kelly chat with the Russian leader, there is no obligation for Stone to get to the point or give up the goods upfront, no matter how satisfying that might (but probably won't) be.

What that means is through the two episodes made available to review, the name "Donald Trump" is uttered once, by Stone, and it isn't until the very end of the second episode. At that point, in a conversation held in February 2016, Putin declares, "Unlike many partners of ours, we never interfere within the domestic affairs of other countries."

In that moment, Stone has no follow-ups. Why would he? Through the interviews that make up the first two hours, interviews without real linear continuity, Stone is clearly working from the assumption that the next president of the United States is going to be Hillary Clinton, whom he refers to several times as a "hawk" and a "neocon." 

These first two hours, then, are works of restraint and also of foundation-laying. They're slightly cautious and slightly canny. If the next two hours prove to be probing and aggressive and perceptive, Stone's occasionally shambling and periodically obsequious approach to Putin could be a rope-a-dope with the cold-eyed KGB veteran as much as it's definitely a rope-a-dope with an audience perhaps hoping to hear references to Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner and urinating Russian prostitutes within the opening five minutes.

Instead, we begin with a lot of talk about Putin's biography, a topic on which Putin is entirely disinterested. The biographical portion of the chat is primarily Stone going through Putin's upbringing, his education and early political career and his ascension to power all on his own. Putin, through a translator, gives only brief answers, irrelevant corrections and clumsy evasions. You could read Putin's reticence to discuss predecessors Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev as steely Russian reserve or as veiled contempt. He's no more forthcoming with personal details. Stone mistakes when he met his wife, so Putin corrects him. Putin later confirms he has grandchildren he doesn't play with enough and agrees when Stone asks if he's proud of his daughters.

When it comes to Vladimir Putin, the man, The Putin Interviews asks you to make metaphorical leaps from his lifelong love of judo and his more recent devotion to hockey, topics on which he's much more voluble. Putin's unnerving comfort in certain environments gives Stone impunity to sneak in questions about Russia's policy on homosexuality next to an ice rink presumably immediately after Putin's regular game. Stone doesn't get good or candid answers to those questions or to insinuations about Russian approaches to ethnic and religious difference, but he tries. When Putin makes jokes, they tend to be sexist or homophobic, but never spontaneous, like he's taunting Stone with fleeting sound bites.

You don't get to know Putin, really, but you get a reasonable glimpse into the mind-set of a man who feels betrayed by decades of U.S. presidents claiming the Cold War is over and yet supporting his political rivals, siding against him in his difficulties with splinter republics and attempting to strengthen NATO even if he's sure the only plausible adversary for NATO is him. It doesn't matter if he's right or wrong about American efforts to influence the Russian state. It doesn't matter if he says things and then offers no supporting evidence or data. It doesn't matter if he's paranoid. He thinks the USA has been trying to bring down the Russian economy and, by extension, him for years.  Also likely to become important later is all of the second-hour chatter about Edward Snowden and surveillance and the strength of the Russian intelligence apparatus.

For two hours, Stone doesn't much care if you're getting what you want, but he wants your Spidey sense to be constantly tingling. 

Formally, The Putin Interviews has a grainy feel that blends docu-style '70s political drama with occasional nods to agitprop, plus a car sequence that's basically "Carpool Movie Karaoke" with Stone narrating the plot of Snowden. Even when they're just sitting across from each other at a table, there's consideration to every bit of framing, whether Putin is being shot from below as a looming gargoyle-esque figure or Stone is presented as disorganized and sprawling, limbs blocking or obscuring parts of the camera. These are considerations you get when your documentary's cinematographers are Oscar nominee Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain and Stone's Fidel Castro doc Comandante) and Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire). It's not every interview-driven documentary that's a pleasure to look at, but The Putin Interviews is much more visually dynamic than either of its on-camera subjects.

Think of the opening two nights as a first date, right down to Stone and Putin enjoying a movie together. It's Dr. Strangelove, and the experience is just as odd and cringeworthy as you could hope for. Probably the actual quality of The Putin Interviews is going to hinge on how the 2016 election impacts Putin's and Stone's conversations and whether Stone gets anything resembling the openness viewers will be demanding after they've sat through two-plus hours of prelude. Nothing in these first two hours suggests Putin is a man likely to crack or blurt something out off-the-cuff, but it's plausible the pursuit could be entertaining. 

Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)

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