“I am excited for it,” Vinnie Malhotra, the head of documentary programming for the network, said of the reviews. “I think that is the reason why we do it. You can’t do a four-hour documentary on one of the most provocative men in the world and not be criticized.”
In “The Putin Interviews,” Stone chats with Vladimir Putin over the course of 12 interviews shot over two years, but it is airing at a time of ever growing intrigue and alarm in the United States over Russia’s role in trying to influence to U.S. elections. Critics, including those in the foreign policy establishment, are weighing in on the extent to which Stone challenges Putin’s spin.
The four-hour project also reflects Showtime’s move toward more political-charged projects in its non-fiction programming.
Later this summer, it will debut Laura Poitras’ Wikileaks documentary “Risk.” Last year, it debuted the documentary “Weiner,” a highly intimate look at Anthony Weiner as he grappled with trying to make a political comeback and a sexting addiction. It also ran “The Circus,” a weekly series about the 2016 presidential campaign.
All of them share one thing in common: They are hitting topics right when they are in the news cycle.
“The Putin Interviews” lands amid the unfolding mystery of Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections, and a special counsel investigation as to whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Putin’s team.
Stone challenges the view that Russia interfered with the election, and notes that in the interview with Putin, the Russian leader says that he has nothing to do with what happened.
Stone has written on Facebook that his project is airing against “a frightening background wherein the U.S. is sleepwalking into a situation where it becomes more and more likely that Russia will react. Which is precisely what so many angry American neocons and Hillary-wing Democrats seem to want!”
Variety‘s critic Sonia Saraiya credited the documentary for its intimacy, but also wrote, “More often than not, Stone and Putin agree — on Edward Snowden, on American overreach, on Hillary Clinton. At times, Stone is skeptical of Putin, but for a leader strongly criticized for his civil rights abuses, it hardly seems that Stone is skeptical enough. On the other hand, there is some value in a profile that the subject finds flattering — it reveals who he wants to be.”
“You can’t do an Oliver Stone project and not be criticized,” Malhotra said. “He’s not trying to play a ‘gotcha’ game. He approached it with an idea: ‘If [Putin] is the great enemy of the United States, then I think we should go out and find who he is.'”
He adds, “There will definitely be a critique and scrutiny, but you have to admire the comprehensive nature of it.”
Malhotra makes some comparison of Stone’s Putin interviews to the Frost-Nixon conversations in 1977, in which David Frost sat down with Richard Nixon for a series of a dozen conversations over the course of four weeks. It marked the first time that Nixon had granted an extended interview since resigning the presidency three years earlier.
The difference, though, is that Putin has been doing other interviews. Megyn Kelly landed him for the recent debut of her new NBC newsmagazine. Malhotra said that they didn’t consider it “that big of a deal because we recognized how much time she would have with him.”
Malhotra said that what sets “The Putin Interviews” apart is the access that Stone got with Putin. He came away with more than 30 hours of footage was whittled down into the four-hour project, which will air over four nights this week. Putin talks not just about the U.S. election, but NATO, playing hockey, “Dr. Strangelove,” and Middle East strategy, among other topics.
He said that when Stone showed them the four hours of interviews, they pretty quickly knew they wanted it. “It was in line with what we had been building for the past year,” Malhotra said.
“This is not [a project for] your traditional news outlet,” he said. “He doesn’t just have 15 minutes to prove what he needs to prove. This is a portrait of one of the most provocative and influential leaders and, if you listen to our government, one of the most dangerous men in the world.”
In one teaser clip, Putin is shown driving as Stone asks him about Edward Snowden. Putin says that Snowden is “not a traitor,” but does not agree with Snowden’s decision to leak a trove of U.S. intelligence. “He should have simply resigned,” Putin says.
Then Putin insists that the Russian “intelligence services always conform to the law,” while taking the opportunity to criticize the U.S., calling it “indecent” to spy on allies.
“I think people will be suspicious, as they should be,” Malhotra said. “Putin is a wildly intelligent individual, but I think people will be pleasantly surprised how thorough and detailed Oliver was in the questioning. I thought he was meticulous, and did a marvelous job of it.”