Three-time Academy Award winner Oliver Stone—the Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who made some of Hollywood’s greatest antiwar movies—was interviewed on the anniversary of D-Day at his Santa Monica office. The hallmark of Stone’s cinematic oeuvre has been artistically creating counternarratives, which has pitted him against not only government forces but also the mainstream media. In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan pursued the Iran-Contra covert operation Stone showed the other side of the story in Central America in the riveting Salvador. Later that year and in 1989, with the Vietnam-set Best Picture Oscar winner Platoon and Best Picture nominee Born on the Fourth of July, Stone took on militarism with his war-is-hell classics. While Reagan ballyhooed unbridled capitalism, in 1987’s Wall Street Stone questioned the “greed is good” ethos. Perhaps most memorable is Stone’s demolishing of the Warren Commission Report in 1991’s JFK, implicating US intelligence agents in the Kennedy assassination. And in his colossal 796-minute 2012 documentary series, Untold History of the United States, Stone compellingly presented an alternative view of the Cold War and more.
Now Stone is back with The Putin Interviews. As the intelligence community, Congress and press investigate alleged Russian tampering with the US presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign and presidency, Stone, using his rare access to the Russian president, dares show Vladimir Putin’s side of the story. During an in-depth interview with The Nation, Stone took the long view of history and stressed he was often expressing what he understood to be Putin’s perspectives. We talked about Edward Snowden, the new McCarthyism, Syria, Donald Trump, Ukraine, MSM, Hillary Clinton, Julian Assange, Bernie Sanders, the Cold War redux, Megyn Kelly, war and peace, and Putin. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nation: Discuss The Putin Interviews’ timeline.
Oliver Stone:The Putin Interviews began in June 2015. We had just finished filming Snowden—we went to Moscow to shoot the last scene with Ed Snowden in it. We stayed for a few more days and went into the Kremlin to see Mr. Putin for our first interview. Then we did two more days on that trip, so we had several interviews. We returned early next year and the middle of 2016—each times, different interviews, in Sochi… in the dacha—it was catch as catch can. His time was very pressured; he works long hours. Often he’d leave at 1:00 am and say, “I’ve got another meeting.”
He does discipline himself and gets a good night’s sleep. He was fresh every day—he was never tired, like I was. Very, very disciplined—probably from judo… He wore a suit and tie and looked very manicured no matter what time of day. He never had to go to the men’s room… He’s been keeping this up for 16 years. I mentioned the Reagan way of doing business—he doesn’t delegate, he gets into the mechanics of every situation. That impressed me… Putin is a very consistent, conservative leader.
The fourth trip—hopefully, we were finished… It wasn’t planned—it turned out after the US election, a whole new bunch of crisis issues were raised. So we arranged to go back in February 2017 and do a final installment, post-Trump. Which is devoted a lot to Trump—but it’s not just in the present, it goes back and encompasses 17 years, telling us about Putin’s time in office, which is very important to understanding the present situation. Americans tend to think in the moment—the headline, the news. It doesn’t work that way—policy, relations between countries take time.… Unfortunately, we don’t have that ability with the media world pressing in for immediate response, like Bush being prompted to say, “I looked into his soul and found a man I can trust”… Relationships like that get built for camera only.
He could have cut this off at any point. If the interviews were dull, my questions pointless, I think it would have ended sooner. I think I kept his interest by dancing, by doing what a movie director does with actors, making them want to do the scenes, keeping the interest going. That’s a quality I’ve picked up over the years working with actors. I’ve done it with heads of state—Castro, Netanyahu, Arafat…
Total, we got 19 hours of film. We cut to four hours—it’s a pretty good ratio of 20 percent. We had 22 hours together… There’s no Russian money at all financing The Putin Interviews…
The Nation: What’s the significance of your documentary coming out at a time of deteriorating US-Russia relations, amidst these election hacking charges?
Stone:It wasn’t planned that way. This is another crisis in a long line of crises. The US has always dominated the media and told its side of the story with headlines around the world. You have to take into account it never includes the Russian point of view, which has never been properly presented to the American people. And when it has been at all it seems to be sarcastically presented, making fun of—it’s not a good way to do business. So what we try to do very clearly is go back in time and work forward to now. With Putin’s 2000 accidental presidency.
He found Russia in a chaotic state—remember, the Americans had been sending economic teams to Russia, advising Yeltsin. Yeltsin had been a good friend to Mr. Clinton—he was very much “our guy.” In 1996, when his poll ratings were dismal, Yeltsin was reelected president. There’s always been great questions in Russia—it was regarded as a fraudulent election, and there’s lots of evidence to that effect. He also got a surprise IMF loan, pretty big one, at the last second to keep that economy up.
Our experiment in Russia did not work—privatization, turning over all of the state enterprises. It setup a lot of the corruption we’re now complaining about. Much of that corruption came from that period. Because those who were smart got the free ride. People that went by the rules, who played by the book, who had the pension plans, the security plans, were really fucked. [Laughs.] Put it this way—the GDP of Russia crashed 40 percent approximately. It was a worse crash for them than World War II, which was enormous damage for Russia. As Kennedy said, “a third of the US, from Chicago to New York, was destroyed.” It sank to the level of about Holland’s economy.
Since Putin came in, it’s really turned around. Income levels have gone up. There’s still poverty problems and gaps—these were set in the ’90s. Privatization was turned around—modified. He believes in a capitalist, market economy—more on the European side of things than the American side. He has enacted financial reform. Made lots of enemies—as you can tell, from people who had benefited in the 1990s. Not all of them—but a lot of them went into exile, took the money and went away.
The Nation: “Oligarchs”?
Stone:Yeah, they were called oligarchs. There were many who stayed and worked with the new government.
The Nation: Should Russia be America’s national-security partner, instead of [our] viewing it as public enemy number one?
Stone:Absolutely. America and Russia have many common interests, including the war against terrorism. In space, they’d be crucial allies. We shouldn’t militarize space, which is one of their complaints. Certainly climate control… There’s hope there could be partnerships in all this—and a secure world…
The Nation: You’ve been a profound critic of mainstream media. What do you think of MSM’s view of Putin?
Stone:It’s been dismal in the West. At first there were some positive things written when he brought some order to the chaos. But when he emerged as a son of Russia, so to speak, acting in the self-interest of Russia, as nations are supposed to act, I think he took American leaders, the elite, by surprise, in his firmness and consistency. A media war against him began in February 2007[, when Putin criticized US unilateralism for “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations” at the Munich security conference.]
The Nation: What strikes me most about your fiction and nonfiction work, from JFK to Untold History, is that in cinematic ways you present a counter-narrative to the prevailing, official version of events and people. How is your viewpoint of Putin different from MSM’s conventional wisdom?
Stone:In our documentary he goes into detail—it’s important to understand history and origins—he goes into three shocks that were laid on him by the US expansion of NATO, starting in 1999—13 countries were added. NATO has another meaning to the Russians than it does to Western people…
NATO as he explains is almost like a nation-state unto itself that takes over the military mechanism of the country it allies with. It becomes a NATO country. NATO planning, use of their country for staging operations, war games, and maybe ultimately as a war hostage, someone on the frontline. NATO is a serious commitment… NATO is sold as an anti-Russian alliance… This is very important to the US I don’t think it’s in the interests of Europe to be the frontline hostage in a situation that has been overwrought. But bringing NATO to the borders of Russia is on the verge—it’s as if [Russia] was putting troops in Mexico and Canada, right on the borders, saying we don’t trust you, we’re going to come down on you at any given moment. It’s a tremendous strain. That’s called a “strategy of tension,” and that is a strategy that’s very fundamental to Western interests… But the Russians have not been putting any tension on us, they haven’t moved troops—it’s the US that’s moving troops. How many forward bases do we have—800? Plus special operations troops in 130 countries—we feel threatened, we feel surrounded…
What Mr. Putin is saying is, “Who is bringing disorder to the world?” If you put it on a map and say “where are the troops, where are the bases, where are the arms going?”
The Nation: Putin actually says in the film that towards the end of the USSR Soviet leaders were promised that NATO wouldn’t expand and accept Eastern European countries as members.
Stone:But it was not on paper, as he said, and he blames Gorbachev…
Number two [the second shock], when George Bush abrogated the ABM Treaty with Russia [in 2001]—that was a shock, truly. Very dangerous for the world—people didn’t pay attention, but the whole concept of nuclear parity that was built up for so many years was violated by that. America has since placed ABMs in Poland and Romania, right on the borders of Russia.
I can’t tell you how much this has thrown the balance off. The Russians were shocked by it—you don’t abrogate treaties that were so important. That was a cornerstone of the nuclear parity, signed in 1972 by Nixon and Brezhnev. It was a very important treaty but the American people don’t realize it because the media didn’t explain it to the world. This means Russia now has to invest money and tremendous energy in rebuilding some of their nuclear facilities. Because they can’t keep up with—ABMs, as Putin explains, can be converted into offensive missiles overnight. Without telling Russia, for example, that you’ve done so, the Russians are very confused as to what’s on the radar, what comes across. If suddenly an ABM starts acting like an offensive missile, it becomes a real problem. You have to gear up your defense system immediately to try to stop these weapons from hitting. America has put submarines, ICBMs, NATO planes, all over Russia’s borders, on both sides. We’re developing all kinds of new machinery, including new nuclear fuses called “super-fuses”—also very dangerous.
In other words, the US has shown no intention of letting up on the nuclear—it has shown an intention to be superior and have first strike capacity on Russia. That’s a serious, serious business. More than you think. This brings us close to the edge. There’s also the great possibility of mistakes, as in Dr. Strangelove [Stone screens Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire for Putin in the documentary], where something goes wrong, somebody overreacts—that’s happened so many times now since the 1970s, how close we’ve been if you’ve followed those details. During the Reagan administration, there were several near misses. So everyone’s nervous right now. The Poles are involved—they hate the Russians. The Eastern European countries, there’s much revenge in their minds. It’s a very dangerous situation; an accident can happen.
Number three [the third shock], and he goes into it in detail, the support of the US for the terrorism in Central Eurasia and also Russia. Putin talks about it, it’s a big point. They were helping us after 9/11, they agreed with Bush to help us with Afghanistan—transit rights, arms, intelligence, they really did help us. They saved quite a few lives actually in Afghanistan. At that point, they started picking up signals from Chechen terrorists, in Georgia… active, trying to separate from Mother Russia, which had already shrunk in 1991, 25 million people. So now Chechnya is fighting, for independence. Georgia became independent during this period. So there were all kinds of problems brewing on the borders. Ukraine became a problem in 2004… and there is terrorism in Ukraine from right-wing thugs.
Bush and Putin had a meeting—he talks about the outcome. Bush agreed we shouldn’t support people who wanted Russia to fall apart—at the same time he’s unable to do anything because the CIA continues to do it. So who runs—you wonder, who’s in charge? Is Bush in charge? Is Trump in charge? Or really is there a secret state, the CIA, the intelligence services, who do what they want to do? So that becomes another issue.
[As] the Soviet state collapsed in ’91… it was still business as usual, sole superpower… Mr. Bush put 500,000 troops in the Middle East. That’s a huge decision—remember, in Vietnam that was done gradually… All of a sudden that 500,000 troops signals a new presence in the world. This is Mr. Superpower hanging out his shingle, saying, “Okay, we’ll decide everything…”
But those three things struck Putin in those first years as a major turnaround in relations. He keeps talking about “our American partners” throughout the documentary. He never says one bad word, he doesn’t badmouth anybody, no president. He respects Obama, respects Bush—he clearly likes Bush, in a way. I’d say on a scale of American values he’d be a conservative American, traditional values, absolutely. He falls in that scale. And if he were an American president he’d be very well-liked by our media because he’s a good, consistent leader.
The Nation: Do you think MSM has demonized Putin?
Stone:Well, none of these three things I mentioned in the 2000 to 2007 period were [reported]. [Editor’s Note: Actually, they were under-reported by the mainstream media.] I didn’t read about them. I thought our relationships were good—but I was wrong. Nor did I follow the 2004 Ukrainian “Orange Revolution”—it seems Russia was fine with Ukraine going Western. That wasn’t the issue. They had trade agreements that were very rich, powerful and good for both sides. They had military agreements for arms supplies. But that got ruptured by a coup d’etat in 2014. There were ruptures in the Georgian war, which is little talked about. The second Chechnya war—finally, Chechnya was calmed down [the war ended in 2009].
The relationship cratered over Ukraine and then Syria, which was first. Because in 2011 the US got heavily involved in Syria, which had been a Russian ally since the 1970s, they had a base there. It was one of their major allies in the Middle East. The US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, England, France all got involved in this proxy war in Syria with the idea of destabilizing, getting rid of Assad and putting in some kind of moderate opposition, which there was no evidence of that time. The country deteriorated. Obama bombed Syria for four years, with no results seen on Isis.
Putin got involved in 2015—that’s when the shit hit the fan. Because there he actually ran huge bombing runs, thousands of sorties, hundred a day, whereas the US is running one or two. He really did a number on Isis, it made a significant difference. If you notice, the timeline of the whole Syrian crisis changes color when the Russians come in and actually do what they set out to do, which is actually fight terrorism. Putin insists that’s the main goal. He points out Damascus is only 1,500 [miles] from Moscow—it’s not far. You have to understand the fear the Russians have of the resurgence of terrorism, as they had at Beslan [school on Sept. 1-3, 2004], in Moscow [in the Dubrovka area of Moscow, four kilometers from the Kremlin on October 23–26], Dubrovka theater in 2002—many Russians died in those terror attacks.
Putin took Syria very seriously—I don’t think America did because we had a different objective. We were not fighting terrorism. We’re fighting for our geopolitical advantage in Syria, which has lots of links to oil and its geography—control of the Eurasian subcontinent, Turkey.
But with Syria and Ukraine, that combination has knocked out any remaining relationship. Added to which is a huge amount of insult in the Western media and governments. When you have people like John McCain saying [Putin] “is a thug, a murderer, a dictator—
The Nation: And “a bigger threat than ISIS.”
Stone:And “a bigger threat than Isis.”
The Nation: What do you think of that?
Stone:I don’t see Russia as a threat. I think this is, as Noam Chomsky might say, a manufactured crisis. It helps keep the American hostility alive, the military-industrial state alive, the budgets alive—it allows us to spend 10 times what the Russians are spending on [the] military. And of course, the hugest mistake of all is what Obama did in 2009, which is declare we were going to completely remodel our nuclear infrastructure, and spend a trillion dollars doing that. Now, that is a very scary thought, if you think about the possibilities of an arms race, how can Russia keep up, how can China keep up? Think of it—commit billions of dollars to war. Where does this lead?
This would have been the great moment—like with the end of Gorbachev, Bush could have said, “Let’s have peace.” Reagan at one point considered disarming completely—remember, Gorbachev said, “Let’s get rid of all the weapons,” and Reagan liked the idea.
The Nation: At Reykjavik in 1986?
Stone:It was a wonderful thought, great moment in time… If the world blows up people should know there was such a moment…
[Obama’s] 2009 [plan to spend $1 trillion on remodeling nuclear infrastructure] is very dangerous. That, with the ABM threat, brings the world to the brink… From all my work on this documentary, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, from my drama instinct, is the Russians are tough people and they’re not going to back down. Their history in World War II is unbelievably resilient—they were overwhelmed by the Nazis, best war machine of all time. They took enormous casualties but they built themselves up and fought back—they actually turned the whole war at Stalingrad… But they fought, then they continued into Eastern Europe, which is unbelievable. They suffered enormous military and civilian casualties—some estimate 27 million… Russia won World War II—and they never got the rewards of it. The Cold War began right away with Churchill and Truman…
Soviet World War II films were very good… They remember. If you make a WWII film now, unless it’s Tarantino’s kind of thing, it won’t get traction in this country. In Russia, it can if it hits the heart because it’s in their DNA. Everyone in Russia, everyone has a relative who was affected, wounded or killed. So many died. The whole country fought for their lives. You have to understand—they’re ready for war, and that’s what they fear. What I felt on my trips… is they’re surprised America would take such a harsh position with them. They like Putin because he stands up for Russia. He’s not been overly aggressive, he hasn’t invaded anywhere, despite what they say…
The Nation: Do you see what’s happening today, with all these allegations of Russian interference in America’s election, as being within a Cold War context?
Stone:Absolutely. Memories of the Cold War have not gone away. All the older generation, the neoconservatives, always remember that and Russia as an archenemy. It’s in their blood, it’s DNA to hate them… I don’t feel it’s necessary, I believe there’s a tremendous amount of distrust, especially on the Republican side. They made this an election issue with Truman running scared [in 1948], instituting the Loyalty Act and CIA. So many of the evils we’ve inherited come from that time. It’s interesting because if Roosevelt had lived a few months longer, there was no question that it would have been a different world he would have framed. I’m sorry that he died in April —if he had lived to July and August… Roosevelt believed in the grand alliance between the US, Soviet Union, England, and China… Churchill said, “whatever you criticize Stalin, he kept his word with us.”
The Nation: With all of these hacking allegations, are we seeing a new McCarthyism?
Stone:It’s bizarre but it’s happening. Those old figures, who distrust and hate whatever reason Russia. I don’t understand why because the Russian people are very close to the American people in many ways…
The Nation: Seventeen US intelligence agencies all came to the same conclusion about Russian hacking, so everybody on the left has to say, “They must know what they are talking about.” So you don’t buy that these 17 intelligence agencies are telling the truth?
Stone:No, because they backed off on it… There were three agencies—the CIA, NSA ,and FBI. They cooked this intelligence. That’s my word [not Putin’s]… These are serious allegations: That Trump was a Manchurian candidate. The influence on the election from the Russians to me is absurd to the naked eye. Israel has far more influence on American elections through AIPAC. Saudi Arabia has influence through money… Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have much more influence on American elections… And the prime minister of Israel comes to our country and addresses Congress to criticize the president’s policy in Iran at the time—that’s pretty outrageous.
Our country is very much in the grip of a dictator: The dictator is money, the military-industrial-complex… It’s beyond absurd to have this kind of expenditure every year on military…
The Nation: Although your documentaries aren’t as well known as your features, you have quite a substantial body of nonfiction films. Can you put The Putin Interviews into the context of your previous documentaries about Fidel, Arafat, South of the Border, etc.?
Stone:Those were specific interviews, as was this. The Putin thing comes about spontaneously, it grows out of the Snowden story. I meet [Putin], and then we end up making a film. We didn’t know any limits at that point. We had to keep it interesting for him. I think he gets bored by most of the interviews he does. Certainly, the Megyn Kelly kind of thing, where she jumps on you and you have to defend yourself, that doesn’t quite work to me… At the end he said to me, “Thank you for being so thorough and asking good questions.” I challenged him softly—nothing gets done with this hard-edged Megyn Kelly stance… She wasn’t well-informed; she mentioned the “17” intelligence agencies and didn’t know what the digital footprints Putin was talking about were.
The Nation: In the Megyn Kelly interview do you think Putin was referring to you when he said there’s a theory in the US that President Kennedy was killed by US intelligence?
Stone:I don’t know. He never talked about it with me… That was out of the blue, a surprise. But he accepted it, almost as a given, didn’t he? I definitely believe it and probably you do, too… Only the state apparatus could pull that off, not amateurs.
The Nation: In terms of the history of documentaries, can you compare The Putin Interviews to nonfiction films that tackle and upend congealed narratives, such as Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11, Errol Morris’ s 1988 The Thin Blue Line and 2003’s The Fog of War, Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 Titicut Follies, Emile de Antonio and Mark Lane’s 1967 Rush to Judgment? These documentaries had countervailing points of view and helped changed public opinion. Can you put The Putin Interviews into that context?
Stone:We don’t know yet. Hopefully it will contribute to peace or harmony or a better understanding. Yes, totally, I’m into a consciousness of another world, an alternative. I don’t understand why we fight wars…
What do you call it: Stone/Putin? Some people say Frost/Nixon. But that was all in the past—this is present. This is a chance for this crazy filmmaker to go over there and ask, “What are you really saying? Can we hear it?”
The Putin Interviews premieres on Showtime June 12 at 9 pm ET/PT, with one-hour portions of the interviews aired nightly through June 15.