“When I have an Oliver Stone [film] on, I want to talk about politics, I want to talk about philosophy, I want to talk about what is truth, what is not truth,” Stephen Colbert said on the Late Show last night, prefacing his talk with the director on his Showtime documentary series — an unprecedented collection of interviews with Vladimir Putin, held between 2015 and 2017. Though Colbert spoke that all very earnestly, he also must have known that the conversation he was about to commence would be a debate, given recent comments Stone has made to the press surrounding his Showtime documentary, The Putin Interviews. This wasn’t an easy or flattering interview — not the kind, in other words, that many critics have claimed his encounters with Putin turned out to be.
As it’s been hinted at in the press Stone’s done for The Putin Interviews, apparently the 20 hours the director spent with Vladimir Putin were enough to gain Stone’s respect for a man best known as an international bully who’s famously hostile to freedom of the press and to gay rights (descriptors that could, of course, just as easily be used for a certain buffoon currently residing in the White House.) This certainly seemed to be the case in a clip Colbert from one of the interviews — in it, Stone asks Putin how he feels about the ways he’s portrayed in the American media in the wake of election meddling allegations, then doesn’t follow up when Putin asserts that his administration didn’t meddle. (Speaking of which.)
“What do you say to the people who say this is a fawning interview of a brutal dictator?” Colbert asks Stone, after the clip finishes.
“You have to be polite because it was a two-year deal… it’s politeness, it’s curiosity, and it’s the way you ask the questions,” responds Stone. “He respected me, he respected my work, and he knew I would give him a fair hearing.”
Colbert asks the very straightforward question: do you like Vladimir Putin?
Stone responds, “I’m amazed at his calmness, his courtesy, [and how] he never said anything bad about anybody. He’s been through a lot. He’s been insulted and abused in the press…” He pauses briefly for a moment after this, as, at this point, the audience starts laughing at him.
“[Was there] anything negative about him you found…? Anything? Or does he have your dog in a cage someplace?” asks Colbert. Stone has nothing.
T.J. Miller, who appeared later in the episode of the Late Show, published a series of tweets as he watched. “It was very much insane,” he wrote, describing what was unfolding, before then seemingly going back and deleting the tweets.
The first episode of Stone’s documentary aired last night, and there are three left. A lot of the early reviewers only had access to two of the episodes — the ones in which Stone emphasized on Colbert that he was trying to earn Putin’s trust. (It appears Putin also earned his.) On Colbert, Stone asserted that he goes harder on the Russian President in the latter episodes. The Guardian‘s Mark Lawson corroborates this — to an extent — in his review of all four interviews: “Especially in the later episodes, [Stone] presses hard on issues including allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election, Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, Syria, rumors that Putin has zillions of roubles in secret Cypriot bank accounts, and the fear that his leadership — which could stretch to 24 years if he wins another presidential term next year — risks becoming a dictatorship cosmetically disguised by democratic process.” Even so, he writes, “It is often said that the most vital aspect of documentary-making is access and, by that measure, Stone’s project is a triumph. But, in a political film, stance also matters, and that is where Stone’s many detractors will attack.”
Putin is one of the most powerful people in the world, and is also elusive to the U.S. press; this kind of access, these prolonged portraits, seem like a big deal, and in order to get them, one would understand the concessions one might make in the beginning. But the very point of journalism is to give us tools with which to deconstruct the performances of the powerful. It is, indeed, in the this country’s best interest to somehow manage to balance criticizing Putin when, say, he does something like annexing Crimea, or makes a new effort to suppress the free press, or potentially hacks a U.S. election. It’s also in our best interest not to make total enemies with Russia, because a second Cold War doesn’t sound like the loveliest.
But that compromise should be up to diplomats to figure out: there’s no reason a documentarian who’s not a propagandist should have such difficulty spotting any potential shortcomings in Vladimir fucking Putin. (Even, if only to, say, comment on the fact that in the interviews Putin jokingly refers to knowing “judo” if a gay man came onto him in a shower.)
Watch the clip: