So, I finally finished ‘The Putin Interviews’! What…a…ride?
A few words before I dive in to the conclusion of ‘The Putin Interviews’:
Reviewing was off to a bad start as I discovered on Jun. 29th that all four original videos of TPI had been taken off Vimeo. I eventually found a new video of part IV, but it was of significantly lower audio quality than the original one. Everything sounded soft, even with the volume turned up on my laptop, so I was able to glean only pieces of the conversation.
Edit 7/2/17: Aaand now all Putin Interviews videos have been taken off Vimeo. It was only a matter of time.
Part IV of TPI focuses on cybersecurity and recent U.S. claims about Russian interference in the presidential election. As such, most of the footage is from February 2017. I can’t help but notice how tired and puffy Putin looks compared to the older clips from ’15 and ’16. (And by the way – Don’t. Smile. Ever.)
Might as well get the remaining nitpicking out of the way while I’m on the subject. A segment where Stone tries to “direct” Putin is downright silly, and I’m glad the Russian president flips the script on him. There are a number of gratuitous Putin hand shots – no, I’m not kidding. In most of these shots, Putin isn’t even gesticulating with them; the camera just jumps to Putin’s hands resting on the table or the arm of a chair. Yes, cameraperson – Putin’s hands are thick and sinewy, but for the love of all that is holy, keep your weird hand-fetish out of the documentary!
*awkward silence, as J.T. contemplates whether she took the “joke” too far*
Stone also doesn’t know how to work with an interpreter (even after 20 hours of interviewing!), referring to Putin in the third person when the president is sitting right in front of him.
Moving on. Stone asks Putin a loaded question regarding allegations of election interference: “So why did you bother to hack the election?”, to which Putin replies (unsurprisingly) that Russia didn’t hack the election at all and that it would be hard to imagine any other country – even Russia – seriously influencing its outcome. He says that talk of “Russian meddling” serves to a) undermine the legitimacy of President Trump, b) create conditions to prevent the U.S. and Russia from improving relations, and c) create additional instruments to wage an internal war.
At 45:00 Stone asks Putin about his personal wealth and the rumors that he’s the richest man in Europe. Putin dismisses the rumors, saying that he has no such wealth. He points out that money doesn’t always bring happiness and you can’t take any of it with you when you die. At least Putin and I can agree on something.
Perhaps the most standout exchange comes somewhere around the 50-minute mark, when Stone brings up concerns about the legitimacy of Russian elections:
Putin: Do you think our goal is to prove anything to anyone? Our goal is to reinforce our country.
Stone: That’s a dangerous argument, because it goes both ways. Those who abuse power always say it’s a question of survival.
Putin: We are not talking about survival and we are not trying to justify ourselves. Certainly taking into account all the negative tendencies you’ve been talking about, the Soviet legacy, the imperialist legacy, it is something in the past. […] This is not a question of helping someone cling to power or to claim it for myself. This is about ensuring economic growth and sustaining it, improving our defense capabilities, and not just during periods of crisis and difficulties.
Stone: We all know the price of power. When we’re in power too long, we feel, no matter what, that the people need us. Meanwhile, we’ve changed, and we don’t even know it.
Putin: Indeed this is a very dangerous state. If a person in power feels that they have lost it, this bond connecting this person to the country and to the rank and file citizens of the country, then it’s time for them to go.
Stone (looking offscreen, presumably for a clock): What time is it?
Aide: It’s time.
So, is ‘The Putin Interviews’ worth watching?
Eh, it depends. If I were rating TPI, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars – not good, not bad, just middling.
Several glaring problems prevent TPI from achieving “good documentary” status. First is its lack of context. TPI is about as superficial as a Russia special aired by the MSM. As I expressed in multiple ‘Late to the Party’ posts, Stone leaves gaping holes in his retelling of Russian history, ’80s thru 2000s. You may hear about visible, hot-button issues, but for proper background information, you’ll have to pick up several books. Also disappointing is Stone’s failure to follow up on Putin’s claims with any kind of serious, informed challenge. His friendliness is welcome respite from the smugness and bashing I’ve come to expect from Western journalists interviewing Putin, but he lets the Russian president get away with a lot. Nor does Stone seem to realize how thoroughly American (even “left”) his interpretive framework is. In part 1, Stone calls Putin a “real son of Russia” for stopping privatization, only to be told by Putin that he did no such thing. Stone similarly revels in stories of Putin’s defeat of the oligarchs. The oligarchs were bad just like Wall Street is bad. So that must mean Putin is the champion of the little man, right? Well, those who note that many of Putin’s childhood and KGB friends seem to have enriched themselves under his rule might disagree. Stone’s main questions about freedom involve NSA-style surveillance, and he pushes hard on questions concerning LGBT rights – again, an issue Americans and Westerners are more likely to care about than Russians.
Those things being said, TPI has its strong points. Perhaps its biggest success is its humanization of Vladimir Putin. He is presented as a more complex individual than the one we see on television. He’s no choirboy, but no world leader is. Putin comes across as fairly well-informed about U.S. policy (though he occasionally indulges in projection) and pragmatic in his efforts to solve some of the pressing problems that he inherited from the Yeltsin era. The docuseries allows Putin to explain his thinking regarding some of the key controversies that have inflamed tensions between Russia and the U.S. While none of the Russian president’s explanations are new, they will be news to many American viewers because Putin’s side of the story is usually either omitted or bastardized in the MSM. In a similar vein, the parts of TPI detailing how NATO expansion and military buildup on Russia’s border prompted a less-than-warm response from Russia – thereby demonstrating the chill in relations is not entirely Russia’s fault – could be considered a frickin’ public service. Whether you agree with it or not, the Russian perspective on U.S. foreign policy and conflict in Ukraine and Syria is right there for you to see. In theory, better understanding of the Russian POV would help the U.S. develop smarter foreign policy that reduces prospects for open antagonism. I doubt many of our politicians will watch TPI – what with their general lack of spare time and all the criticism TPI has received in the mainstream press – but at least We the People (We the Interested People, anyway) can still watch TPI and learn from it.
‘The Putin Interviews’ is definitely uneven, but it’s bound to be informative to someone.