Oliver Stone on Vladimir Putin: ‘The Russian people have never been better off’
‘Have you ever been beaten?” Vladimir Putin poses the question to Oliver Stone close to the end of Stone’s extraordinary four-hour documentary on the Russian leader. “Yes,” says Stone. “So, it’s not going to be something new, because you are going to suffer for what you are doing,” says the Russian leader, before striding out of a room that conjures the spirit of the Sistine chapel crossed with the most fevered fantasies of Donald Trump’s interior designer.
In this instance, Putin was right. Stone’s epic four-part film The Putin Interviews was described by the Daily Beast as a “wildly irresponsible love letter” to Russia’s president. It “says as much about Oliver Stone as it does Vladimir Putin”, said CNN. “Flattery, but little scepticism,” said the New York Times.
Harsh words for a project that took a lifetime of achievements to secure and two years to make. Does Stone mind? “I mean, it affects movies, you know. You work very hard on a movie and sometimes it’s judged more by the person who made it than by what the content is. I can say I’m a black man in that way. It’s not the content, it’s not the content of my character, but it’s the nature of my probing.”
Stone is a lot of things. Sitting in the glittery Conrad hotel in lower Manhattan, an Elizabeth Peyton hanging on the wall of his suite, he’s the Oscar-winning director of classic films including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Natural Born Killers, and clunkers such as Alexander (with Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great). He wrote Scarface and summed up 1980s Wall Street in a single speech, in the film of the same name: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works.” He is a decorated Vietnam war veteran. He is not a black man. It is exactly the sort of statement that gets men – and it’s nearly always men – his age into trouble these days. At the risk of losing the rest of the interview before it starts, I let it slide, hear him out.
It’s that kind of decision – on a much larger scale – that has plunged Stone’s project into trouble. In the first half of the documentary, Putin reveals he does not have bad days because he is “not a woman”. “I am not trying to insult anyone,” he says, as he does exactly that. “That’s just the nature of things. There are certain natural cycles.” He also reveals that he would rather not shower next to a gay man. “Why provoke him? But you know, I’m a judo master.” This from the leader of a country with an increasingly disturbing record of abuses against the LGBT community.
Stone lets the comments slide. Why didn’t he challenge Putin? “It’s not my job to do that,” he says. What he wanted to do was build a rounded portrait of arguably the most fascinating and frightening world leader in a generation. If that is how he thinks, that is what Stone wants you to know about. He is not trying to change Putin’s mind, but to show it.
Stone’s larger point is that Putin is not so very different to many world leaders – not even on social issues. “Obama was against same-sex marriage as late as, what, 2014, 15?” says Stone (it was 2012, but fair point and let’s not get started on the Clintons). “So, what’s the big deal? Everyone’s got to be on the frontline, and if you don’t mouth the politically correct thing, that’s what they do in America, every fucking show. Bill Maher says something stupid [the late night comedian recently caused a furore after he used the N-word on his show], and it’s like there’s nothing else to do but to have a sin-bashing orgy. That’s all. That’s all it is, they love to do this. To Trump, too,” says Stone.
What does Stone make of Donald Trump? “Don’t bait me with that one,” he says. “That’ll be the headline. Instead of it being about my movie, it’ll be about this headline.
“[With Trump and the press] it’s excitement, it’s a game, it’s fun, but it doesn’t satisfy the requirements of civilisation, which are peace, security, peace, security, peace, security. And we’re not aligning to that.”
Most of the reviews of Stone’s Putin documentary so far have been written after critics saw just the first two hours. They form a sympathetic portrait of Putin and his emergence from the wild west days of the Yeltsin presidency, which Stone describes a sort of “mad capitalism, and alcoholism, sort of like a Dostoyevsky orgy”. But The Putin Interviews do get more critical as the episodes go on. In the second half, Stone pushes Putin on hacking the US election, on the oligarchs, on how long he intends to remain in power. Putin’s sphinx-like mask occasionally cracks, although he remains the judo blackbelt.
In one way, Trump’s election couldn’t have been better for Stone. The hacking of the Democratic National Convention by – allegedly – Russian forces and Trump’s seeming embrace of Putin before the election have given the documentary a timeliness that might, perhaps, have been missing under a Clinton presidency.
Everyone wants to know what Putin has to say about Trump and Russia’s alleged hacking of the US election. Sadly, it’s not a lot: the hacking accusations are “silly”, he says. “Certainly we liked [the idea of] President Trump, and we still like him because he publicly announced that he was ready to restore American-Russian relations.” Putin adds that it’s a good thing to have economic cooperation and to fight terrorism.
Stone keeps pushing: “So why did you bother to hack the election then?” Putin picks his nails and looks down before answering: “We did not hack the election at all.” Stone pushes him once more on Russia’s cyber-attack capabilities. Putin doesn’t give anything away but looks, says Stone, “like a fox who just got out of the hen house”.
There may be no “gotcha!” moment but the director’s aim, he says, is to start a debate not to end one. For many in the US, Putin is – to quote John McCain – a “butcher” and “thug” and a worse threat than Isis. For Stone, the public should worry about the US’s cyber abilities, too. The world is a worrying place; both sides have bad intentions. Simply demonising Putin – and, by extension, Russia – is dangerous, says Stone, and wrong. “They have freedom of worship, they do what they want. They have travel, the Russian people have never been better off. But of course in America, they’re [the Russians] miserable, dictated to, in stalags, in gulags, they’re all being chopped up by this monster. It’s just crazy,” he says. “And the British are worse. I mean, this is Murdoch’s lies, he’s told lies about the entire world, they created wars.”
It’s not a view that will gain much support in the corridors of power in Washington or London. And it will be disputed by many in Russian, too, including Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader jailed and physically attacked for leading protests against the Putin regime.
As if to underline how little there is here to satisfy Putin’s many critics, the documentary is being shown uncut in Russia; clearly, there is much that the Russian establishment are pleased with.
But while the merits of what Stone has produced are up for debate, there’s no doubting what a coup he and his long-time documentary producer, Fernando Sulichin, have pulled off. The pair first met Putin while working on their movie about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Sulichin, who oozes a steely charm, has a way of getting what he wants. During the filming of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, he convinced the Saudis to allow them to film in Mecca – the first time the country had allowed a non-documentary film crew to shoot in the holy city.
Once Putin had been convinced, they spent two years putting together the documentary, interviewing the Russian leader more than a dozen times, most recently in February after the US presidential elections. Kremlinologists have been hard at work to decipher what exactly we learn, if anything, about Putin’s and Russia’s role in the Ukraine, cyberattacks, Syria – all topics of lengthy discussion that have experts poring over the footage for signs and tells from this most slippery of statesmen. But, for the average viewer, the opportunity to watch Putin so closely, over so many hours, is mesmerising.
The documentary has its lighter moments, too – not all of them intentional. Putin and Stone are a classic odd couple. The messy, craggy, ursine Hollywood wildman and the pantherine, inscrutable politician. It isn’t David Frost v Richard Nixon, oil v grease, but more The Jungle Book’s Baloo and Shere Khan transported to the Kremlin.
At times it feels like a game. You pat my back, I’ll pat yours. Walking down the corridor to Putin’s office (it used to be Stalin’s) a TV just happens to be playing Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich in which he dropped all diplomatic niceties to accuse the US of provoking a nuclear arms race with its “almost uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations”.
“You could have been a movie star,” says Stone, looking at the screen and playing the flattery card. They walk through to Putin’s office, where the president returns the compliment: there’s a copy of Stone’s book, The Untold History of the United States, on his desk. Putin has, allegedly, cracked a lot of spines but this one looks untouched.
In another telling scene, Stone is setting up a shot in which Putin is supposed to walk into a room and the pair will act as if they have not spoken in months. “Action,” shouts Stone. Nothing happens. “Action,” he repeats. Still nothing. He asks the translator to shout. Still nothing. Cut to Putin, who winks to camera and then strolls in carrying two cups of coffee. If you had any doubt who’s in charge, you don’t now.
That’s not how Sulichin sees that scene. He says Putin was shy around the camera. His reading is jolly, good-natured, humanising. For others, even Putin at play will send shivers. Sometimes it’s hard to detangle the message from the messenger. It’s an issue that Stone is well aware of. He is beginning to sound a little weary now. “Everything I did was examined by a certain light. And as an artist, it’s very limiting. I hate that. I try to avoid it, and you can see, I’ve made a whole variety of films. I wish I’d made some more, but there were always blockages of some kind. I maintained independence, I haven’t done a film I didn’t want to do. I’m responsible for them all, including the ones that didn’t do so well, but I’m still, at my age, I’m making what I think is right. Unless you have that sense of freedom in your heart, you can never really be at peace with yourself,” he says.
So, what’s next? Stone is delighted that Jeremy Corbyn did so well in the UK election. “I like Corbyn’s foreign policy, above all. I know he’s elected for some other reasons, for like giving free bingo games or what – I don’t know, in England, you’re crazy – but talking about foreign policy, he understands more than any other western politician what it takes now to save the world, including the changes in the world.” Could a documentary on the Labour leader be his next project? “He’s part of the change. And he can articulate it, but the problem is keeping the English conservatives under, keeping them under the lid, because they get so angry, the right in England; they always want a war somewhere. Winston Churchill comes out, you know, ‘We gotta get someone.’”
But there are also signs that Stone is preparing to call it a day. In a recent Facebook post, he called The Putin Interviews “a four-hour audacious climax to my strange life as an American film-maker”. Is it the climax?
“I don’t know if they’ll ever give me a chance to make another movie. I never assume anything, I really try not to. Because I did at one point, when I was in my middle of my career, and I think that spoils you. At least I have the freedom to do what I want to next, I don’t have commitments to something that’s going to weigh me down. You understand what I’m trying to say? Tomorrow, I could move to Albania.” Why would he do that? “I don’t know that I want to live under such a strict Anglo-Saxon code the rest of my life, now that I’m getting older, you know? Maybe there are better, more peaceful ways to live without being in conflict with the fact that your tax bills are going to the bombings of, or the building of such crappy military equipment.”
The Putin Interviews is on Sky Atlantic every night for four nights from Wednesday at 2am. In the US, it begins on Tuesday on Showtime at 9pm Eastern/Pacific Time.