Film director Oliver Stone, whose series of conversations with Vladimir Putin air next week on Showtime, said he watched Megyn Kelly interview the Russian president on NBC and concluded that “he knew his stuff and she didn’t.”
Kelly’s interview, which aired on the debut of her newsmagazine, “Sunday Night with Megan Kelly,” on Sunday, “became machine-gun like,” Stone said, and was an example of how American journalism frequently leaves little room for nuance.
“I think she was attractive and she asked hardball questions, but she wasn’t in position to debate or counter him, because she didn’t know a lot of things,” he said.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim shot back that “no one here is interested in Oliver Stone’s unsolicited thoughts on Megyn Kelly’s appearance or his ill-informed opinion of her journalism.”
“But so long as we’re offering each other professional feedback, please let him know I don’t think he’s made a decent movie since the early ’90s,” he said.
Putin was combative when asked in the NBC interview about hacking in the U.S. presidential election and relations between Russia and President Donald Trump’s team. He’s more serene on Showtime, where more than a dozen interviews that Stone conducted with the Russian president between 2015 and early this year unfold one hour per night for four nights starting Monday.
As an example of where he believed Kelly was mistaken, Stone said the claim that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded the Russians were behind election year hacking and used as a preface for a question had been “walked back.” It was a reference to testimony from James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, about a hacking report by three specific agencies. The independent organization Politifact has produced a report that backs Kelly, however, because Clapper had earlier said that all 17 intelligence agencies he had supervised agreed about Russia’s involvement.
Stone, a controversial figure who has interviewed Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and produced a documentary backing Putin’s version of events in the Ukraine, conducts a Putin interview far less confrontational than Kelly’s, at least on the basis of two episodes provided for screening by Showtime. One critic, Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast, called in a “wildly irresponsible love letter” to Putin.
The filmmaker’s style does include its share of ingratiating remarks. “You have a lot of discipline, sir,” he says at one point. “You are an excellent CEO. Russia is your company,” he says at another. Besides office sit-downs, Putin is interviewed driving a car, walking through horse stables at his home and after he played in a hockey game. When Putin makes a claim about a letter he received from the CIA and Stone asks him to produce it, the Russian president says, “My words are enough.”
Yet Stone also challenges Putin on his authoritarian style and questions his claims of democratic reform. The filmmaker said in an interview that there are more direct questions about relations with the United States in the unseen third and fourth episodes.
He asks Putin about assassination attempts and, while it was inadvertent in one case, captures a couple of eye-opening moments. Asked if he ever have bad days, Putin replies that “I am not a woman so I don’t have bad days,” adding a reference to “natural cycles” affecting behavior.
During a discussion about gay rights, Putin said about a homosexual male: “I prefer not to go in the shower with him. Why provoke him?”
Stone is aware that he’ll receive criticism for not pushing Putin hard enough. “I’m not a journalist,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker and I was taking a different approach.”
The project’s value comes in seeing Putin talking about his life and world view in an extended format, seeing the personal and political history that drives policy for the U.S.’s biggest adversary, and simply how his mind works. At one point Stone asks Putin about a 13 percent inflation rate, and is quickly corrected. “Twelve point nine,” he said.
“It’s crucial for the United States to understand another point of view,” Stone said. “I’m interested in preventing a further deterioration in relations.”
The film also features Stone screening a copy of the Cold War-era satire “Dr. Strangelove” for the stone-faced Russian leader.
“I pushed him where I felt he should be pushed,” Stone said. “At a certain point, you know that that person is not going to change his approach. He’s a leader. He thinks things through and he’s made his point. I can’t think of anything more that I could have said or done.”