Monday, June 26, 2017

How Putin Seduced Oliver Stone — and Trump

Photo
CreditNa Kim
Watching four hours of Oliver Stone interviewing President Vladimir Putin of Russia is not a lesson in journalism. Mr. Stone is an inept interviewer, and he does not get Mr. Putin to say anything the world hasn’t heard from him before. Watching the interviews for entertainment is a questionable proposition, too: The four-part series contains many dull exchanges and even more filler, like footage of the two men watching “Dr. Strangelove” together.
Still, “The Putin Interviews,” which were released this month by Showtime, may be worth watching for the view they provide of a particular kind of relationship.
Many Americans have been looking for an explanation for Mr. Trump’s apparent adoration of Mr. Putin. How can a powerful, wealthy American man hold affection for the tyrannical, corrupt leader of a hostile power?
Oddly, “The Putin Interviews” provide psychological and intellectual answers to that question. For Mr. Stone appears to have the same sort of breathless admiration for Mr. Putin as Mr. Trump does. In filming their interaction, he has broadcast the conditions on which this kind of admiration rests. Should you ever wish to experience affection for a dictator, you too should make sure that these conditions are in place.
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Condition No. 1: Ignorance. It helps that Mr. Stone seems to have only the most vague, and largely inaccurate, ideas about Mr. Putin’s biography and Russian history. Mr. Stone’s ignorance of his subject allows him to listen uncritically as Mr. Putin lies.
In Episode 2, responding to a question about the state of democracy in Russia, Mr. Putin claims that Russia has “hundreds of television companies” that the state could not control if it tried. This is untrue but goes unchallenged.
In Episode 3, Mr. Putin tells a long and winding story about the origins of the war in Ukraine, culminating in the claim that the war began after nationalist Ukrainian Special Forces kidnapped ethnic Russians from eastern Ukraine. Mr. Stone appears to accept these fantastical claims.
Condition No. 2: A love of power and grandeur. Episode 2 is the story of a courtship, of sorts. Mr. Putin shows Mr. Stone his horse stables (intercut with stills of Mr. Putin riding). Then the two men watch a movie together. Then Mr. Stone watches Mr. Putin play hockey and fawns, praising Mr. Putin’s athletic prowess and vitality.
Then Mr. Stone brings up the thorny subject of L.G.B.T. rights, which Mr. Putin takes as an opportunity to assert both his desirability and his homophobia: He says that he would not enter a shower stall with a gay man because he wouldn’t want to tempt him, and because he is a master of judo. In other words, the hypothetical gay man would find Mr. Putin irresistible, and Mr. Putin would have to beat him up. Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Stone seem to find this scenario entertaining.
In Episode 3, Mr. Putin shows Mr. Stone his home in Sochi. Mr. Stone is duly impressed. Then they go to the Kremlin. “This is a pretty big place you’ve got here,” Mr. Stone enthuses. “Can you show me around?”
Mr. Putin obliges, taking Mr. Stone to an office where a monitor is broadcasting — perhaps on a loop — Mr. Putin’s famous 2007 speechdenouncing NATO and the West, and to another office, where the Russian president keeps a portrait of his father as a young sailor in Crimea. At the conclusion of the episode, Mr. Stone recites to Mr. Putin the Russian president’s own speech about the annexation of Crimea. Mr. Stone seems to enjoy having Mr. Putin’s words in his mouth. Mr. Putin is clearly pleased to hear his own speech, albeit in English.
Condition No. 3: Shared prejudice. Mr. Stone and Mr. Putin are both terrified of Muslims. This shared view facilitates much of their conversation. In Episode 1, Mr. Stone informed Mr. Putin that William J. Casey, who led the C.I.A. in the 1980s, had a project “to excite the Muslims in the Caucasus in Central Asia.” (Mr. Stone is apparently unaware that the Caucasus and Central Asia are two different regions, hundreds of miles apart.)
In Episode 2, Mr. Stone offers his sympathy to Mr. Putin: “You mentioned earlier, the white, the ethnic Russian population is diminishing,” he says, apparently believing that Russia was, consequently, in danger. But Mr. Putin has good news: “Fortunately, we have reversed this situation. For three years running, we have had population growth, including in regions that are historically majority ethnic-Russian.” Mr. Putin practically appears to be the savior of the white race.
Condition No. 4: An inability or an unwillingness to distinguish fact from fiction. Throughout the interviews, Mr. Stone appears to ask Mr. Putin prearranged questions, probably written by the Russian president’s staff. Such scripted questions are standard fare for Mr. Putin’s annual news conference with Russian journalists.
In Episode 1, for example, Mr. Stone, after fumbling through a set of inaccurate biographical queries, suddenly asks Mr. Putin about assassination attempts against him. There had been more plots against Mr. Putin, says Mr. Stone, than against Fidel Castro. “There is a legitimate five I’ve heard about,” he says confidently. This is remarkable, because journalists who have covered Mr. Putin — including me — have not heard of five, four or even one attempt to assassinate the Russian president (though Russian law enforcement has claimed to have foiled a plot or two). But Mr. Putin is not at all surprised at the question and proceeds to answer it confidently.
It should not be surprising that Mr. Stone is willing to play the Kremlin’s game. Throughout the “Interviews,” he uses footage from feature films — World War II movies and even Mr. Stone’s own drama “Snowden” — as though they were documentaries.
Condition No. 5: Moral neutrality. To exercise ignorance, racist prejudice, a love of power and total disregard for factual accuracy, one has to inhabit a world where everything can mean anything and nothing is certain.
A quote from Episode 4 illustrates how this approach works: “Stalin was a product of his time,” Mr. Putin says. “You can demonize him all you want, or, on the other hand, talk about his contributions to victory over Nazism. But the excessive demonization of Stalin is just one way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia, to suggest that today’s Russia carries the birthmarks of Stalinism. Everyone has one kind of birthmark or another. So what?”
So what, that is, if Russia increasingly idolizes the man who killed millions of Soviet citizens and confined tens of millions to concentration camps? So nothing, apparently. “Your father, your mother, admired him, right?” Mr. Stone says. “Of course,” Mr. Putin says.
Of course, Oliver Stone is not Donald Trump. But he shares with him a certain way of seeing the world and being in the world — and the luxury of persisting in this way of being, and even making a spectacle of it.

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