Meeting Gorbachev shows a master still at work
A collaboration between Werner Herzog and André Singer, Meeting Gorbachev is a combination biographical documentary and interviews with the last head of state of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev himself is a fascinating figure for a documentary, and filling in his biography prior to him becoming the General Secretary of the Soviet Union is extremely interesting. But the same poise and skill that helped him rise to power also make him a frustrating interview subject.
There’s no doubt that Gorbachev is a charismatic figure, and Herzog certainly seems to fall under his spell in a way we haven’t seen him do with previous documentaries. Part of the Herzog documentary charm is his darkly ironic approach to his subjects. But here the typically unflappable German filmmaker seems positively entranced by the former world leader. Part of it seems to be the way that Gorbachev never loses control of the situation. Or maybe I am reading into it? But I don’t think we should be surprised that a former politician always remains such, especially as he does not seem to drop any new information, even on such consequential events as arms talks and Chernobyl. Herzog isn’t trying to go full Frost/Nixon, but we don’t see him challenge Gorbachev on his perspective.
We do get some more emotional moments from the leader as the documentary goes on. Not only when Gorbachev speaks of his wife, but also when he talks about his further attempts at reform, and his belief that we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The latter section includes him talking about his relationships with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, contrasting their views on armament in a way that we rarely see as Americans. It’s hard not comparing them to Trump, May, and Putin, and it may surprise some by how sharp a contrast that is, at least on the international stage. Or maybe we’re all just a little nostalgic.
Sections of the documentary also have a focus on German-Soviet relations, and as an American who was born the same year Chernobyl happened, they are harder for me to contextualize. This isn’t the documentary’s fault, but I found Gorbachev’s recollections about the arms talks much more revelatory.
This is the closest the dry German will ever get to something like RBG, but there’s still more meat here than in that film. Meeting Gorbachev is neither shocking nor provocative, but it certainly provides a window into the former world leader, as well as Herzog himself.
Meeting Gorbachev opens at the Ritz at the Bourse today.