“Have you ever been beaten?”
This is the question Vladimir Putin, barely suppressing a mischievous smile, asks Oliver Stone at the conclusion of The Putin Interviews, Stone’s ambitious, illuminating, and often bonkers series of conversations with the Russian strongman.
“Beaten?” Stone responds. “Oh yes, I’ve been beaten.”
“So it’s not going to be something new,” Putin says, now openly chuckling, “because you are going to suffer for what you are doing!”
“I know,” Stone says, nodding. “But it’s worth it.”
It’s a self-important note to end on, but a fitting one for a director who views himself as a martyr to the truth. The Putin Interviews aims to undercut every story you’ve heard about Russia since Donald Trump was elected president—and much more. Stone has long been intent on exposing the seedy underbelly of U.S. foreign policy and the many-tentacled reach of the deep state, even if it means he’s dismissed as a conspiracy nut. “Why does that bother people so much?” he asked Matt Zoller Seitz, as recorded in the indispensable The Oliver Stone Experience. “Because it could be true that their government is a monster? That there’s a malignancy in our military-industrial-security complex that has grown so much more immense now?”
These are sane questions, but they become something else when they start to dovetail with Donald Trump’s own pet theory for the troubles that have hobbled his young presidency: that it is being derailed by leaks, insubordination, betrayals, and other manifestations of the deep state. And those questions become even more problematic when they are funneled through the mouth of Vladimir Putin, who has an axe to grind and Western democracy to undermine. But while Stone has gotten a lot of grief for his interviews with Putin, this is actually the kind of argument that he has been making for decades, through movies that show hidden puppet-masters pushing the country into conflict to perpetuate their power and serve their self-interest. The Putin Interviews is just the crude culmination of a long and singular career.
The Putin that emerges in The Putin Interviews could almost be an Oliver Stone character. Some of Stone’s best characters—most notably James Woods’s wiry performance in Salvador—are manic figures driven by restless, nervy energy, but his signature leading men, from Jim Garrison in JFK (Kevin Costner) to Chris Taylor in Platoon (Charlie Sheen) to Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July (Tom Cruise), are straight shooters. Their defining trait is an almost simplistic patriotism, albeit one that is eventually shaken by the horrors of their country’s sins. Throughout The Putin Interviews, Stone marvels at Putin’s composure. The Putin that Stone presents is deeply patriotic, clear-eyed, optimistic. He recognizes injustice, in this case the injustice of the United States’s treatment of Russia, from the “shock doctrine” policy of the 1990s to the expansion of NATO, all of which is portrayed as the justification for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Above all, Putin is macho—a quality he shares with Stone’s characters—joking about menstruation and showing off his hockey prowess in a clearly rigged game.
Putin, of course, could also be an Oliver Stone villain. He is vain, conniving, dishonest. He is a genuine puppet-master, one who manipulates Russian patriotism to amass power and serve his own interests. And he lies about it, arguably the biggest sin in Stone’s worldview, articulated throughout his body of work, from Salvador to Snowden.
But Stone is not particularly interested in discerning the “real Putin,” if such a thing exists. Putin emerges from his documentary just as mysterious and contradictory as ever, partly as a result of his own shrewdness and partly because of Stone’s lack of guile. He is so willing to acquiesce to Putin’s version of events that he ends up being viciously trolled, convinced that a video Putin shows him of Americans fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan is actually a video of Russians heroically fighting ISIS.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Putin Interviews is far more about the United States than it is about Russia. The case that Putin makes against America is one that Stone himself has made throughout his oeuvre: the disastrous impact of American foreign policy on the people and countries it arrogantly aims to help (Platoon, Salvador, and Born on the Fourth of July); the way the military-industrial complex both controls the country and reflects its dark heart (JFK, W., and Snowden); the inevitable corruption of empire (Alexander); the spiritual poison of Western-style capitalism (Wall Street, Any Given Sunday, Natural Born Killers).
As Zoller Seitz writes in The Oliver Stone Experience, in JFK
the Kennedy assassination is, incredibly, mere means to Stone’s larger end: to warn the viewer that since the end of World War II, the United States has not truly been a democracy, in the sense that school textbooks idealistically claim, but a whey-faced dictatorship run by the military-industrial complex—a loose consortium of interests linked by the desire to acquire and hold power by generating public fear of “enemies” within and without, then generate profits by selling arms and munitions to the U.S. military in order to defend against those same enemies.
The United States, Stone argues, is trapped in this destructive imperialistic cycle. At his free-wheeling best, such as in JFK and Salvador and Platoon, Stone offers a refreshing counterpoint to the cant about American greatness. At his feverish worst, such as in W., his movies read like a Salon.com article circa 2005.
Putin paints this version of America repeatedly in The Putin Interviews, both unprompted and with Stone’s encouragement. Asked about the United States’s decision to expand NATO in the two decades that followed the end of the Cold War, Putin says, “I get the impression that they have to enforce control over the Euro-Atlantic camp, and to that end, they need an external enemy.”
In Putin and Stone’s conception of events, the ongoing tension between the United States and Russia is an inevitable result of the U.S.’s imperialistic ambitions and a deep state that is addicted to conflict. Asked if anything changes now that Trump is president, Putin, with a twinkle in his eye, says nothing does: “Everywhere, especially in the United States, bureaucracy is very strong—and bureaucracy is the one that rules the world.”
It’s a more compelling argument than many in the foreign policy establishment would admit. But in The Putin Interviews, the message isn’t as big a problem as the medium—and as Stone has aged, he has increasingly embraced any medium that shares his message. Stone himself referred to the idea that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election as a “great fiction.” The irony is that Putin’s coy denials in The Putin Interviews all but concede that Russia did it. “When there is an action, there is always a counteraction,” Putin says, not-quite admitting what everyone already knows.
But this, too, lines up with Stone’s great thesis. In Stone’s universe, this is a truth that the people of the United States must understand: that the U.S.’s hostile acts abroad have consequences, that chickens ultimately come home to roost. But Vladimir Putin is not Jim Garrison or Chris Taylor, even if he isn’t exactly Natural Born Killers’s Mickey Knox either.
“[W]e have reached Roman Empire grotesquerie,” Stone told Zoller Seitz. “The change of leadership means nothing; the new emperors mean nothing. They’re wrestling with greater and greater scandals, more distracting things. There’ll be a thousand Fergusons. There’ll be a thousand ISISes, groups that are essentially our creation. There’ll be messes everywhere, and we’ll be fighting with them. We can’t even get judges appointed. Gridlock has reached the point of Roman corruption madness. How do you come out of that? Hopefully, for us, it’ll be a slow decline. The barbarians, so to speak, came into Rome and extended it another seven hundred years.”
In that wild hodgepodge of ideas, there is a message. It would just mean a lot more coming from Stone than Vladimir Putin.