Who’s the most interesting man in the world? It’s not that guy in the Dos Equis commercials. It’s Vladimir Putin.
Like him or not, he’s a fascinating figure, and he’s getting four consecutive nights on Showtime starting Monday night to give his view of the world.
The medium for his message: A series of interviews conducted by Oliver Stone during various visits to Russia from July 2015 to last February.
The resultant documentary, titled “The Putin Interviews,” is four hours long -- an hour each evening. Showtime provided the first two for preview.
In them, we see Stone basically conversing and palling around with Putin -- just the two of them plus an omnipresent interpreter, a young Russian who by all appearances does a remarkable job as go-between.
While much of what Putin says can be interpreted as calculated, at the same time he gives an impression of forthrightness and even candor. If this sounds contradictory, then it’s also why Putin is so fascinating.
Very generally speaking, the takeaway from these interviews is that the view from Moscow is different from the view from Washington. While this might seem obvious, it is very informative and eye-opening to listen to Putin make his case for his country, its people and their way of life.
He gives a clear impression of physical vitality and mental acuity. At age 64, he works out seven days a week with an emphasis on a lifelong judo practice.
We also see him playing ice hockey and driving his own car -- a Mercedes SUV -- while Stone interviews him from the front passenger seat. A Russian president who plays ice hockey? No wonder he’s popular.
The interviews cover aspects of Putin’s upbringing and career, including his years with the KGB followed by his rise to prime minister following Boris Yeltsin in 1999. To hear Putin tell it, he was just in the right place at the right time, and otherwise cannot (or does not) really explain how or why he was tapped for leadership in the new Russia.
Other topics include NATO -- particularly the addition of various Eastern European nations to the alliance that were once vassals of the Soviet Union. In fact, “vassals” is a word Putin uses more than once to describe the current members of NATO. The U.S., Putin says of the alliance, “has no allies, only vassals.”
He is offended by the West’s portrayal of Russia as an adversary, and in that context, questions whether there should even be a NATO.
He is openly distrustful of the U.S., accusing its leaders -- including presidents Bush and Obama -- of seeking cooperation with Russia in areas such as the war on terror while at the same time supporting various enemies of Russia with money and weapons.
At one point in the first hour, Putin provides one of those great Russian proverbs -- a joke of sorts stemming, one assumes, from a vast well of pessimism when it comes to life generally. “Do you know what they say among the Russian people?” he asks Stone. “They say that those who are destined to be hanged are not going to drown.”
In this documentary, Stone is Putin’s co-star. Stone is another guy people either love or hate. At times in these interviews, he reveals as much skepticism of the U.S. and its intentions as Putin does, although that should surprise no one.
The fact is, Stone has given us a great opportunity to learn more about Vladimir Putin than any other U.S. source recently.
For example, Megyn Kelly’s grammar-school newspaper interview with Putin earlier this month on her new NBC show was just about the least informative interview of a significant world leader that has aired on TV in any number of years.
Give Oliver Stone credit for enterprise. Somehow, he gained an incredible amount of access to a man you wouldn’t expect would be so eager to talk so publicly about so many subjects.
Stone’s not a newsperson, but then again, interviewing skills are not unique to the news business. Anyone who is curious, extroverted, well-spoken and well-prepared can conduct a good interview -- depending, of course, on the cooperation of the subject.
In this case, Stone’s subject seems as intrigued with Stone as Stone is with him. They’re an interesting match, making for a documentary that is well worth watching.
“The Putin Interviews” premieres Monday night (June 12) at 9 on Showtime.