Meeting Gorbachev is a new documentary film co-directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer. The movie offers a biographical look at the life and career of Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the most important figures in 20th century politics and the final President of the Soviet Union before its collapse. It played at festivals including the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
This film’s story is fascinating, particularly if you have any interest in Cold War politics. The Cold War is one of the most important periods of contemporary world politics. More often than not, we as Americans see the American side of that era, with documentaries about Reagan’s contributions to the global conflict being relatively common. As such, it is fascinating and refreshing to see a movie that takes a look at this conflict from the other side.
Herzog, in typical Herzog fashion, is trying to run the film. It is evident from the very first shot that he is trying to point Gorbachev in a certain direction, but Gorbachev isn’t having that. Herzog’s bias as an interviewer is obvious and he even gives a disclaimer in the beginning that he is approaching this from a clear perspective, although he does have the journalistic integrity to allow Gorbachev to tell his story fairly.
The movie offers a very surface-level look at Gorbachev’s career with little more exploration of his contributions than you would get from a high school history class or reading a book. However, this does open the door for conversation about modern and historical world politics and the idea of perspective. The film doesn’t do a very good job of exploring Gorbachev’s personal life either, although we do get an interesting, albeit brief glimpse into his post-war solitude in the last minutes of the movie.
This story, no matter how shallow the presentation of it is, is still extremely relevant to modern politics. In this day and age, some of the same conflicts that Gorbachev faced in the Cold War, like nuclear war, are continuing to heat up today. His perspective on the past can offer some insight into how we should act in the present regarding these issues. Additionally, Gorbachev’s domestic policies are also interesting given his strong opposition to the current leader of Russia, Vladmir Putin.
Furthermore, Russian history is pretty fascinating and even somewhat enjoyable to watch. The section of the film in which Herzog is discussing the way in which Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union is quite entertaining. The U.S.S.R. had a problem of electing older and terminally ill rulers after Brezhnev got out of office until Gorbachev was elected. As such, Herzog would introduce the new ruler, state how long he was in office, and we would hear the funeral march. This happened twice and was funny both times.
On a technical level, the movie was very strong. Three interviews between Herzog and Gorbachev conducted over a series of six months comprised a majority of the film’s storytelling, but some of the more straightforward historical elements are told via archive footage explained by voiceover narration from Herzog. The interviews are framed quite well, despite the fact that the way in which they were conducted is somewhat questionable and biased. The editing of the movie is also very good, particularly the incorporation of music, which helps keep the pace moving steadily and often complements the images quite well.
Overall, Meeting Gorbachev is an informational, entertaining, and well-made documentary. History buffs and Cold War junkies certainly won’t want to miss this one, as Gorbachev’s perspective is unique and sadly underseen.
Meeting Gorbachev opens in theaters on May 3.