Over the course of a three-decade directing career, Oliver Stone has built a reputation as a political provocateur. In narrative and documentary films, he's presented unorthodox takes on John F. Kennedy's assassination and Richard Nixon's presidency, and humanized foreign leaders including Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
His willingness to contradict the accepted narrative of American history has led some to dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist. His latest project, Showtime's "The Putin Interviews," seems similarly fated to provoke controversy.
In the four-part documentary series beginning Monday, Stone sits with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a dozen conversations filmed over two years. The topics range from "Dr. Strangelove" to Russia's track record on LGBTQ rights to Putin's passion for judo.
Oh, and that whole hacking-the-election thing.
At a moment when much of the country is fixated by the unfolding Russian saga, "The Putin Interviews" represents a massive get for Stone and for Showtime, which has been investing heavily in politically themed documentary programming.
(By contrast, Megyn Kelly's much-touted interview with Putin, which aired June 4 on NBC, lasted for about 10 minutes.)
But while some might be hoping for a tense showdown — especially given the show's title, which consciously evokes David Frost's Watergate-era "The Nixon Interviews" — Stone's goal was understanding, not grilling.
"My role is really to go to him and ask him to explain how he sees the world and what he thinks," Stone says by phone. "By listening to him, we may not agree with it, but it's important we hear it."
The project emerged during research trips to Moscow for "Snowden," Stone's 2016 narrative film about former National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The director met with Putin to discuss the Snowden affair, and it eventually led to a series of conversations — a total of about 20 hours of footage — filmed as recently as February.
"No questions were banned, there were no need to see the questions beforehand. It was totally in our control," says Stone, who made the series with his longtime documentary producer Fernando Sulichin.
As to why Putin, who has rarely given such access to Western reporters, agreed to participate, Stone says, "He knew who I was. I'm sure that 'Platoon' made quite an impact there. And 'JFK.'" He also points to his behemoth 12-part documentary series, "The Untold History of the United States," which offered a critical look at American involvement in World War II and the Cold War.
The series marks Stone's second collaboration with Showtime, after "The Untold History," and it's another in a string of timely documentaries to land at the premium cable network. President and Chief Executive David Nevins has made a priority of political programming that offers rare access to newsworthy figures.
It's possible to trace the bizarre tale of the 2016 election through the channel's documentaries, beginning with "Weiner," the Sundance favorite that cast a spotlight on scandal-prone politician Anthony Weiner and his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, and continuing with "The Circus," Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's behind-the-scenes look at the campaign and, now, the Trump White House. July brings the premiere of "Risk," Laura Poitras' critical portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
"People want to understand, and I think the great promise of what we bring is greater depth than you can get on a basic cable news show," says Nevins, adding that he approaches nonfiction shows in much the same way as scripted series: "from a place of character and personality."
"Whatever you think about Oliver's politics," he says, "he lets Putin speak for himself and lets you judge."
In Stone's portrayal, Putin emerges as a shrewd and highly disciplined leader, if also a macho showboat who makes cringe-worthy jokes about showering with gay people and women's menstrual cycles. (He has some good lines too, as when Stone gives him a DVD of "Dr. Strangelove" as a present, only to discover the case is empty. "Typical American gift," he says.)
In the two episodes made available to the media, Stone broaches some fraught subjects, most notably Russia's track record on LGBTQ rights. But he also makes the case that the U.S. and its European allies are partly to blame for the increasingly frosty relations with Russia, and argues that Putin, who has been accused of ordering the killings of his opponents, has been unfairly vilified by the Western media — a point he stands by.
"Even Hitler was more popular," he says.
Stone is also on the record as a skeptic regarding Russian interference in the election. He told CNN's Christiane Amanpour last year that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was "a great fiction" and speculated that it was an "inside job." On social media, he has criticized the Washington Post and the New York Times for reporting that reflects a "stagnant Cold War vision ... where the Russians are to blame for most everything." (His son, Sean Stone, also co-hosts a show for Russia Today.)
Stone's stated aim is to provide historical perspective "so you don't overblow the hacking issue. It's a thing that I think happens in America, we tend to run into the headline-grabbing thing in the moment. The tyranny of now."
Though some critics thought Kelly, NBC's new star hire, was out of her depth with Putin, Stone thinks she erred by "establish[ing] a hostile relationship with him. If I had done that [with Putin], it wouldn't have lasted. You have to have a relationship with your subject and a sense of trust. I'm not there to prove myself a tough guy. That's not going to get me anywhere."
Some have accused Stone of being a Putin apologist. Writing for the Daily Beast last week, Marlow Stern suggested the filmmaker liked "cozying up to dictators" and engaging in "hero worship."
Stone disputes the claim.
"I just love dictators. I really do," he says with a sarcastic laugh. "Hell, I like peace. I'd like to see the world in harmony. I think the U.S. and Russia could be great partners.… Why has it deteriorated to this point?"