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Deconstructing Criticism of Oliver Stone's "The Putin Interviews"

Estimated Reading Time : 7 minutes 38 seconds

Showtime recently released a four part interview titled The Putin Interviews, which are a collection of four, one hour conversations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and iconic American filmmaker Oliver Stone. The documentary series has generated a great deal of backlash against Mr. Stone, which should come as no surprise since controversy has long been his artistic companion. 

Oliver Stone's feature films like Salvador, Platoon, JFK, Nixon, W. and Snowden have attracted much criticism from establishment sources who despise Stone's contrarian views and political beliefs. When he got into making documentaries and interviewing political figures, the knives that were already out for him got considerably sharper and longer. Stone's interviews with Fidel Castro (Commandante, Looking for Fidel) and South American leftist leaders (South of the Border) and his historical documentary Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States, were pilloried in the mainstream media and by the powers that be, and that continues with his Putin interview. 

Google "Stone and Putin" and a plethora of attacks against the director and his interview with Putin will pop up. Stone went on Stephen Colbert's show recently and was laughed at by the audience and his host for having the temerity to question the establishment narrative when it comes to "the tyrannical dictator" Putin and Russia. 

These attacks are to be expected, the American public has been so heavily propagandized against the Russians and Putin in recent history that audiences are simply incapable of even contemplating questioning that powerful narrative. Add to that the fact that any opposing views to the official mainstream story are quickly exiled or labelled the work of Russian agents or dupes, and it is easy to see why any stance that is not even pro-Russia, but not anti-Russia is laughed at, suffocated or ignored.

Which brings us to this past Sunday, June 25, 2017. The New York Times ran an Op-ed from a contributing writer, Masha Gessen, titled "How Putin Seduced Oliver Stone - and Trump". Ms. Gessen is an outspoken anti-Putin Russian exile and LGBTQ advocate. She is well-respected by the establishment media, having written a book about Putin ("The Man Without a Face"), and is often a guest on cable news, or a contributing writer to some of our "finest" establishment magazines and newspapers, like the New York Times and the New Yorker, where she has a piece published this week as well. 

Ms. Gessen's op-ed is a remarkable thing to behold in that it is entirely at odds with itself, is devoid of any substance or insight and is a shameless hit piece. For a woman held in such high regard by people in power, she reveals herself to be a shallow and rather vacuous thinker with little value beyond being a propaganda asset. 

The opening line of her Times piece states, "Watching four hours of Oliver Stone interviewing Vladimir Putin is not a lesson in journalism." I assume Ms. Gessen thinks she is being clever here, but she shows her hand as being completely ignorant in regards to filmmaking. Oliver Stone is not a journalist, he is a filmmaker and documentarian. Those are two very different things. A journalist searches for THE story, while a documentarian tells A story that brings insight to THE story. Stone's approach to this interview is just like his approach to his feature films, he is seeking the counter-myth to the prevailing establishment myth. He is not here to regurgitate the official mainstream story that is repeated ad infinitum in the press and on cable news every night, he is looking for the alternative view. 

Stone has made his mark in cinema by seeking the contrarian narrative in the face of conventional thoughts and beliefs. So when America was in love with itself and its unquestioned moral purity in the 1980's, Stone directed Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July, films that shatter the American myth of good intentioned superiority. 

With Stone's 1991 masterpiece JFK, he explicitly states that the film is a counter myth to the establishment myth of the Warren Commission. Even with his biography of Nixon, a man Stone should have reviled, he goes contrarian and paints a heartbreakingly human portrait of a man he could have easily caricatured as a villain. 

And so it is with Stone's documentaries as well. His interviews with Castro, South American leftists and now Putin, are meant to challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom and narrative of the establishment. That Ms. Gessen is too blind to see that reveals either her bias or her ignorance. If Ms. Gessen wanted the same old Russia bashing story, she could watch Megyn Kelly interview Putin. 

Gessen then follows that opening line with this beauty, "The four part series contains many dull exchanges and even more filler, like footage of the two men watching Dr. Strangelove together."  This sentence alone reveals Ms. Gessen is in so far over her head in regards to cinema that she will never make it back to shore. 

The scene where Stone and Putin watch Strangelove is a piece of cinematic brilliance that nearly made me fall over laughing. The juxtaposition of Putin, this alleged dictator and tyrant, sitting for two hours watching a cold war Kubrick dark comedy about U.S. - Russian relations and war, is priceless entertainment. This entire sequence wasn't filler, it was symbolically the heart of the documentary. America of today, with its anti-Russian hysteria, has turned into a nation of General Jack D. Ripper's who are fearful of those Rooskies tainting our precious bodily fluids (our "sacred" elections!!). For Gessen to not get the joke, and to not understand the nuance and brilliance of that sequence exposes her as being either humorless or intentionally obtuse. 

Ms. Gessen then gets into the meat of her anti-Stone/Putin piece by laying out how "a powerful, wealthy American man can hold affection for the tyrannical, corrupt leader of a hostile nation." This sentence is riddled with assumptions that are never proven and say more about the writer than its subject. Just to remind Ms. Gessen, America and Russia are not at war. Russia is only a "hostile nation" to those that declare it to be but never prove it. Unlike the U.S., Russia is not currently moving troops and equipment to America's border, or illegally invading and bombing (Syria) one of America's allies. That Ms. Gessen just assumes her thinking to be true shows us that she expects her readership to be of the same mind set as she, which means she isn't here to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with her, the marker of a weak writer and flaccid argument if there ever was one. 

Ms. Gessen then lays out five conditions that need to exist for someone like Stone (and by never explained but magical extension Trump) to be duped by Putin. They are, in order...

1. Ignorance : Ms. Gessen attempts to lay out the case that Stone is so ill-informed that he is little more than a wounded mouse being toyed with by the big, bad cat Putin. Her two examples of this are, when Putin claims that Russia has hundreds of television outlets, and so the idea that he controls them is absurd, and that Ukrainian Special Forces kidnapped ethnic Russians in East Ukraine. Ms. Gessen says these two things a egregiously incorrect…although she never provides any information or links to prove this fact. Maybe they are totally wrong, that is certainly possible, if not likely, but after four hours of conversation, THAT is the most powerful evidence you can find to back up your claims of ignorance? That makes for a very shoddy case at best, and does not speak well of Ms. Gessen's anti-Stone/Putin case. 

2. Love of Power and Grandeur : Condition number two seems self-explanatory enough, Stone was seduced by the power of Putin's position and the grandeur and opulence of his life. Ms. Gessen references Putin's stable of horses and Stone's fawning over Putin's hockey prowess. 

Then, in a bizarre jump, Ms. Gessen references an exchange where Stone challenges Putin over his LGBTQ stances, something which has made him enemy number one in some precincts here in America. Gessen claims Putin responds by declaring his desirability and homophobia which makes both men laugh. I was surprised when I saw this exchange because Putin actually stated that there are no laws against homosexuals in Russia, a fact that most Americans will probably not know. He then said that he is very traditional and prefers a traditional marriage and children, but that adults can do as they please. 

Look, people can disagree on their interpretation of Putin in this exchange, and no doubt Ms. Gessen, an LGBTQ advocate, has a predisposition to dislike Putin on this issue, but that is besides the point to me. My point is this…what does Putin's stance on gay issues have to do with Power and Grandeur? Because it is so haphazard, it feels like Ms. Gessen just wants to bring the LGBTQ issue up so she does it here because it won't fit anywhere else. Again, this undermines her argument and makes it rather incoherent. 

Later in this section, Gessen pulls a trick out of her bag that is a doozy. She pulls the old "weasel word" routine to make her point. She states that, "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." 

Two things here…the first is, the phrase "Mr. Stone seems to enjoy having Mr. Putin's words in his mouth" struck me as…pardon the pun…queer. It was reminiscent of Stephen Colbert's "cockholster" joke regarding Trump and Putin. A not-so-subtle dig at Putin's alleged homophobia and Stone's supposed infatuation with the man. 

The other thing is that Ms. Gessen uses the word "seems". "Seems" is a weasel word that lets you speculate as to what is in someones mind. It is a cheap and easy stunt to pull to simply project what you want into someones motives or thought process without having to take responsibility for having done so. When Ms. Gessen says it "seems" Stone likes Putin's words in his mouth, she is imagining and making up things in order to make her argument more powerful where facts are not present to do so. Again, in a four hour conversation if you have to conjure up boogie men and pretend to read people's minds to make your case, you have a very weak case indeed. 

3. Shared Prejudice : This is by far my favorite condition, because it reveals Ms. Gessen to be an absolute and utter intellectual fraud. In this section, Ms. Gessen claims that Stone and Putin are both "terrified" of Muslims and that this "shared prejudice" is what binds them together. It might have been a good idea for Ms. Gessen to take two seconds and learn a little something about Oliver Stone before writing this piece, like the fun little fact that his son Sean is a Shia Muslim. Does Ms. Gessen know that? I'd bet not, which reveals not only the weakness of her argument, but her laziness as well. 

She finishes this section with another dip in the pool of weasel words. She says that "Mr. Putin practically appears to be the savior of the white race." Can you find the weasel words readers?  How about…"practically appears". So Putin isn't exactly the savior of the white race, he just "appears" to be, and even less he "practically appears" to be. This is a giant red flag signaling Ms. Gessen's un-seriousness and the vacuity of her argument. 

4. An Inability or Unwillingness to Separate Fact From Fiction : In this section Ms. Gessen takes Stone to task for believing a bunch of nonsense about assassination plots against Putin. She writes, "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".

This should be Ms. Gessen's strong suit, as someone who has covered Putin she should know the facts about these things and her insight would be useful for those of us that are ignorant of the facts, among whom she includes Stone. But even before she ends that sentence she destroys her credibility by writing in parenthesis, " (though Russian law enforcement has claimed to have foiled a plot or two)". Ummm…wait…what?

Here is the full sentence again…" 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)."

So Ms. Gessen has "not heard of five, four or even one attempt to assassinate the Russian president", except she then says Russian law enforcement claimed to "have foiled a plot or two". So that means there is at least a "plot or two" she has heard of, which means her previous statement is self-debunked and utter nonsense. And again…the nebulous sort of language she uses…like "foiled a plot or two". Which is it…one or two?…or maybe more?…maybe five, like Stone said. Ms. Gessen's credibility has left the building and she ain't coming out for an encore.

5. Moral Neutrality : Ms. Gessen finishes her piece by destroying the argument she made to open her piece. In attempting to prove Mr. Stone's and Mr. Putin's "moral neutrality", she cites a sequence where Stone questions Putin about Stalin. Ms. Gessen writes,  

"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." 

Ms. Gessen started her piece by excoriating Stone for not getting Putin to say anything worthwhile, but here Stone gets Putin to say quite clearly that his parents, and most likely by extension him, respected Stalin. That "seems" quite revealing of Putin to me, but what the hell do I know?

That Putin couches his answer about Stalin by speaking of his victory over the Nazi's should come as no surprise. The Soviets lost 30 million people fighting the Nazi's and winning the war.  Stalin was a monster, no doubt, but he in fact, DID defeat Nazism. 

Think of it this way, America massacred and slaughtered millions upon millions of Native Americans, and imprisoned the others into concentration camps where hunger, disease and poverty nearly wiped them off the face of the planet.That is America's "birthmark". Does that make anyone who thinks America is a wonderful country, like, one would assume Ms. Gessen who emigrated here, a proponent of the dreaded "moral neutrality" of which she writes? No, it means that things are not always black and white, and that two things can be true at the same time. Nuance, Ms. Gessen, is not the enemy.  

Ms. Gessen concludes her piece by writing, "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."

These last lines, upon closer examination, mean absolutely nothing. Just for fun, let's take a look at them and see what we can decipher. "Mr. Stone is not Mr. Trump." This is the most logical sentence in the entire piece. No, Oliver Stone is NOT Donald Trump. They are two different people with two different bodies living two different lives. "But he shares with him a certain way of seeing the world and being in the world". Weasel word alert!! Can you find it? You got it…"certain". A "certain way" of seeing and being in the world. What way is that? It would really be helpful if Ms. Gessen explained what that "way" is because it is pivotal to her argument, yet she, for some unknown reason, never clarifies what that way is…odd. 

This mysterious "way", like the rest of Ms. Gessen's mystical and mythical argument, never materializes in her writing and so we are left with little more than a muddied, muddled and fuzzy diatribe that is light on fact and insight and reeks with the stench of emotionalism. 

I do not doubt Ms. Gessen's sincerity, I only doubt her intellect and writing ability. It "seems" to me that "maybe" due to Ms. Gessen's personal feelings about Russia, Putin and his LGBTQ beliefs, she let her emotions over ride her intellect, and thus her argument and her op-ed suffer grievously and are rendered moot as a result. 

As for Oliver Stone and his Putin Interviews, I commend Stone for having the courage, just as he did with Fidel Castro, to go straight to the eye of the storm to find the truth rather than relying on our compromised media and their endless propaganda. Regardless of what you may think of the Russian president, I believe Stone's Putin Interviews should be mandatory viewing for any and all Americans. As inundated as we are with anti-Russian and anti-Putin propaganda, it is important to see another side of the story if only to give us more information to make up our minds about this man who dominates our news, but about whom we know so little.

Putin may be the ultimate villain the media make him out to be, but permitting him to be portrayed as a cartoon Dr. Evil gives us no strategic or tactical advantage when sizing up our alleged greatest enemy. Or maybe, just maybe, we haven't been told the whole truth about Vladimir Putin and Russia, and Oliver Stone's interview is a window into a world that has existed all along, that we have not been inclined, or permitted, to see. Your best bet is to watch the whole thing and judge for yourself. 

***To see another example of the New York Times running an anti-Russian hit piece like Ms. Gessen's, please read this awful "news" piece by the repugnant Jason Zinoman about comedian Lee Camp, but first, read Camp's awesome response to it so you can slog through the bullshit more easily. It is well worth your time and will help you read between the lines of the propaganda that permeates our everyday, courtesy of the establishment media and The New York Times. ****