Monday, June 19, 2017

Puppetmaster: Oliver Stone's THE PUTIN INTERVIEWS

The skeleton key moment that unlocks what’s startlingly effective and unshakably troubling about Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews comes at the top of its fourth hour. The latest in the director’s side project making documentaries which chronicle his conversations with controversial foreign leaders–  Israelis and Palestinians in Persona Non Grata, Fidel Castro in Comandante and Looking for Fidel and a number of South American leaders including Hugo Chavez in South of the Border – takes him to Russian president Vladimir Putin. After what we’ve seen as three hours of discussion, but which obviously translate to many more hours of raw footage, Stone cheerfully asks Putin to indulge him in setting up a shot. Go down the hall and then walk in and greet me, Stone directs, jocularly playing for the camera his control over the situation. He calls action. Putin does not enter. Stone cuts to show us the interviewee in the other room, smirking and winking at the camera as he ignores the repeated cues. He enters when he’s ready, speaking a charming line he’s clearly prepared. Stone seems to view the whole encounter innocently, otherwise he wouldn’t have included it so lightly in the film. Here we are, it seems to say, enjoying one another’s company. How relaxed we are. Indeed, this moment, and the film, reveal a personable Putin, who has complexity and humanity beyond the headlines. However, the scene shows more than Stone seems aware. He thinks Putin’s playing along, but really it is the Russian president demonstrating his control. Who is a pawn in whose game here? The answer seems clearer to the audience than to its director. 

Over the course of many hours we hear about the Russian president’s life, ambitions, world view, and goals. He is subtitled, and Stone lets his translator drift into the margins of the sound design from time to time, making a pleasing multilayered multilingual experience. What we learn little about are the variety of abuses in and allegations about Putin’s conduct, Stone allowing a chummy, discursive approach that enables Putin to steer the conversation, especially since the American interlocutor never directly challenges the former KGB agent on the nastier and more frightening tendencies widely reported – crackdowns of free speech and treatment of dissent treated gingerly, if at all. In Putin’s telling, he cares only about making Russia a strong, independent country with a firm grip on “family values.” (That this is expressed in heteronormative assumptions and terse homophobia should surprise no one familiar with the hypocritical and oxymoronic religious right in our country.) The documentary does an effective and interesting job examining the Putin philosophy. He bristles when discussing NATO and outlines a perspective on the geopolitical history of the last 100 years as one where any Russian aggression is simply tit-for-tat reactions to other’s countries’ slights, attacks, threats, and encroachments -- cause and effect stretching back decades. He continually disdainfully speaks of the West in general, and the United States in particular, as seeking not allies but “vassals,” a curiously medieval turn of phrase that’s nonetheless remarkably candid in explicating his viewpoint. 

Where the movie fails is in Stone’s oddly submissive approach. It’s baffling to consider the filmmaker who is so singularly skeptical about the narratives of powerful people – it’s all over his fiction filmmaking, the sort of nervy, edgy, intensely sympathetic, bracingly intelligent, conspiratorial frenzy that gives his work its heady, entertaining charge in exploring leaders and institutions of all shapes and sizes, from presidents to bankers to entertainers – going so cognitively limp. He presents his multiple interview sessions as warm and likable chat sessions, mixed with interesting tours of presidential offices and even an impromptu screening of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War dark comedy Dr. Strangelove. (That’s by far the film’s best scene, with Stone grinning that relatable grin of a cinephile eager to see how his viewing partner is reacting, and Putin returning a stoic, unsmiling “very interesting” as the credits roll.) The four-hour-film is ultimately an American auteur crafting a moderately educational Russian episode of MTV’s Cribs. He does such a good job presenting Putin’s point of view it’s an example of Stone’s skeptical contrarianism taking him all the way around the bend. He can’t see his way clear to tough questions because he’s too busy using his interview subject to question American hegemonic thinking (he throws in references to our “neocons” and, cringingly, includes clips of his own films) to challenge Russian talking points, too.

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