The knock against “The Putin Interviews” is that it’s a bit of hagiography on the part of Stone, who’s the kind of reflexive old lefty who sees the U.S. as the root of almost all of the world’s ills and, therefore, anyone who opposes the U.S. even mildly as a necessary evil to push back against the American-imposed darkness.
And it’s not a bad framework for a scripted film. In “JFK,” for instance, the idea that the U.S. power structure is so entrenched that it will create a byzantine conspiracy to remove one man who dares oppose it even slightly becomes a vivid portrayal of the country’s darkest self. You don’t have to believe that JFK conspiracy theories are literally true to believe “JFK” is true, in other words. At his best, Stone gives us a way to discuss these fears we have about our country’s true aims.
But in a documentary — even a documentary with aims of propaganda — that framework works less well, because it becomes just as simplistic a frame for reality as “U.S. good, everybody else bad.” Of Stone’s documentaries, his 10-part 2012 Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States” probably came closest to blending his worldview with a truly compelling nonfiction film. But even there, Stone often went in for tit for tat — sure, the Soviet Union might have done this bad thing, but the U.S. also did this bad thing.
It worked there as a way to try to jar Americans out of a post-Cold War complacency, a belief that we might have done some bad things in that period, but it was all justified in the name of beating back the Soviet menace. But it works less well in “The Putin Interviews,” which too neatly glosses over plenty of things that Putin is doing to his own people in the name of painting him as a reasonable critic of the U.S.
This is particularly egregious when the film turns to, say, Russia’s treatment of its LGBTQ citizens, or its frequent military incursions into former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia.
Stone will suggest that critics find Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws overly harsh, and then Putin will say, “Oh, hey, I don’t really agree with people who are gay, but we don’t persecute them either.” But Stone doesn’t otherwise provide evidence to the contrary. He just suggests it exists, then lets Putin respond to it, within a framework that has already written off most critics of Russia, especially those in the U.S. media, as untrustworthy.
What’s most frustrating about this is that it’s clear Stone doesn’t intend for the film to be a direct celebration of Putin. He’s cagier with Putin than I expected, given the prerelease hype, and he’ll occasionally pounce on one of the leader’s contradictions. He also films Putin, frequently, from jittery, off-center angles, in ways that make you question not just the man but the presentation of the entire interview itself. (My favorite choice in this regard is Stone’s decision to let you hear his Russian-to-English translator softly murmuring over most of Putin’s answers.)
But Stone simply isn’t a good enough interviewer to make this a valuable exercise. He leaves obvious follow-up questions dangling, and he’s too indebted to his original vision of the project — as a sort of “let’s figure out who this man is, instead of who we’ve heard he is” biography — to really roll with major world events, be they the Syrian conflict or accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The events depicted in this documentary are fluid, and Stone isn’t good enough at pivoting to match them.