There was some kind of diabolical kismet at work this week when, in between the release of former FBI director James Comey’s six-page written testimony recounting his tense encounters with President Trump and his actual appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Oliver Stone’s upcoming documentary “The Putin Interviews,” landed in my inbox.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the prospect of Stone, as rightfully revered for his command of film language and emotionally immersive storytelling as he is reviled for historical revisionism and provocation, going toe-to-toe with the Russian leader would have been considered a can’t-miss cinematic event. Who better than Stone, whose films have so boldly challenged American military hegemony, capitalist greed and shadowy abuses of power, to bring his singular brand of the American paranoid style to bear on the opaque authoritarian leader of a Russian government that itself stands accused of corruption, bellicose adventurism and, most recently, cyberwarfare on a global scale?
But what might have once promised to be an explosive on-screen matching-of-wits instead arrives just in time to be colossally irrelevant: an erstwhile scoop made instantly negligible by the breaking news it’s been engulfed by, and the imaginative and ideological limits of its director.
Showtime, the cable network that will begin showing “The Putin Interviews” on Monday, only made two episodes of the four-hour series available for viewing; perhaps Stone ends with some bona fide confrontational bombshells. But that prospect seems dim, judging from the first two installments, in which Stone never brings up Russia’s involvement in Syria, media censorship in Russia or the mysterious murders of dissidents and journalists. After a benign review of Putin’s political career, he engages the poker-faced leader in a collection of interviews — which started in 2015 and continued through February of this year — that don’t challenge Putin but allow him to have his say, whether he’s calling for the dissolution of NATO, portraying Russia as a nascent but robust democracy, accusing the United States of aiding terrorists in the Caucasus and, in the second episode’s breathtaking final moment, stating that Russia “never interferes within the domestic affairs of other countries.”
That last whopper — which Stone seems to accept at face value — strikes a particularly preposterous note coming in the light of Comey offering persuasive testimony that Russia indeed did hack the U.S. election last year. “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” he told the committee in a Thursday hearing that spanned 2½ hours. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts.”
That moment and many others made for far more riveting cinema than the alternately static and stagy visual and narrative design of “The Putin Interviews,” which consists mostly of talking-head shots of Stone lobbing softballs (“Do you ever have a bad day?”) and Putin dutifully, dispassionately hitting them back. Despite Showtime’s best efforts to hype Stone’s access, the film feels startlingly inert, not only compared with the filmmaker’s better work (including last year’s “Snowden”) but also to the screenplay-like world-building of Comey’s written testimony, written with such dramatic thrust and detail that it couldn’t help but conjure a taut political thriller in the imagination of anyone who read it.
To be fair: There’s a useful, even necessary place for revisionism in the cinematic canon. As Stone himself proved with “JFK,” a brazen, self-consciously stylized reframing of consensus history can be great art even at its most outrageous, inviting viewers to question official verities and their own most precious assumptions. And documentary filmmakers have allowed subjects to run the table before with riveting results, most notably in “The Fog of War,” when Errol Morris filmed former defense secretary Robert McNamara engaging in a rambling, unintentionally revealing recollection of how he prosecuted the Vietnam War. Even in “South of the Border,” Stone’s admiring portrait of South American leaders opposing U.S. neo-liberal economic policies, his credulity made room for genuinely enlightening observations about the vexed legacies of Western colonialism and economic exploitation.
Early in “The Putin Interviews,” Stone announces there will be “no rules” during their times together. But it becomes clear that Putin didn’t see the need for any, as the filmmaker continually declines to probe or push back on even the most dubious of his subject’s assertions. As this column was being written, Comey was conducting classified testimony before his congressional interlocutors, with the various investigations of Russian malfeasance continuing apace. And “The Putin Interviews,” which in tougher hands might have provided valuable insights alongside those processes, instead has relegated itself to the sidelines. What might have been the cinematic event of its time has been quickly outpaced by time and events themselves.
The Putin Interviews airs in one-hour installments Monday-Thursday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.