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Review: Meeting Gorbachev

Nearly 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and yet memories of the once-mighty empire remain steadfast in much of our collective remembrances (even ironically for those born after its demise). Indeed since its fall in 1991, the USSR has increasingly become a source of much mythology and romanticism, and at the center of the debate however of what exactly led to the Union’s dissolution is unquestionably one central figure, that of Mikhail Gorbachev.

His policies and decisions not only sealed the fate of the communist superpower but continue to resonate today. It is with this focus that iconic German cinematic auteur Werner Herzog has pointed his directorial lens in the documentary feature Meeting Gorbachev.  

Co-directed by British filmmaker Andre Singer, Herzog has crafted more than just a biographical film, but a sympathetic look at a statesman widely revered in the West, but also widely isolated and loathed in Russia. Structured around a series of interviews between Herzog and Gorbachev conducted in 2018, Meeting Gorbachev does exactly what its title says: allow us to meet Gorbachev or at least let us hear his perspective.

Elevated to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, Gorbachev inherited a state with numerous economic and social problems. His solutions in the now famous (or infamous) policies of glasnost and perestroika, began a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the USSR’s break up in just six short years. Was it all part of the plan? Or were spiraling events out of Gorbachev’s control to blame? Herzog clearly has a soft spot for Gorbachev (Germany was reunified during Gorbachev’s time in power after all), and through his gentle (but still incisive) questioning of the now elderly leader a portrait emerges of a man who tried and hoped for the best.

With Herzog’s narration and somewhat typical style of going into tangents, Meeting Gorbachev blends elements of traditional biographical documentaries with moments of humor and genuine affection for its subject. Rather than just a mere recitation of key events, the film employs an evident bias in favor of Gorbachev and his life’s journey.

Anchored by a wide scope of archival footage and personal materials, these newsreel images shed light and bring us back to these crucial moments of 20th-century history. With the additional support of fellow policymakers as interviewees, the message at the movie’s core is explicit; Mikhail Gorbachev fought for an end to nuclear proliferation and the belief that communism could be genuinely reformed for the benefit of all Soviet citizens.

Perhaps his governing style and loosening of the Soviet dictatorship was rooted in an idealistic naivete but as Gorbachev states himself at the end of the film, “We tried” to bring about meaningful change, though not likely the change that resulted.

Rather than just a mere recitation of key events, the film employs an evident bias in favor of Gorbachev and his life’s journey.

For opponents of Gorbachev (and in Russia he remains as polarizing a figure as ever), Herzog’s film will be seen as a shameful glorification of the former General Secretary; yet even in spite of the clear bent towards him, Herzog has effectively used facts to persuade viewers that Gorbachev was a thoughtful and well-intentioned leader. Western audiences will certainly be more likely to accept this narrative, while detractors will continue to resent Gorbachev’s role in the Union’s breakdown.

What is, without doubt, is that under his watch, the mighty Soviet Union would cease to be; whether Mikhail Gorbachev should be lauded or loathed for it remains a topic of fierce contention, but Herzog unabashedly goes for the former. And yet even lauded is perhaps not the right term, for what he really attempts to do is create sympathy. Vilified, isolated and besmirched by many, Gorbachev’s post-political life in Russia has been anything but tranquil; Herzog wants us to appreciate the toll this has taken on the now 88-year-old Gorbachev, who continues to live with regrets to this day. And appreciate it we do, for even if we don’t agree with his reformist actions there can be no denying the heavyweight of blame that has fallen at Gorbachev’s feet, deservingly or not.

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In an entertaining, informative, humorous and sympathetic fashion, Werner Herzog (and co-director Andre Singer) have given spotlight once more to one of world history’s most influential figures; though its biased tendencies may alienate some, Meeting Gorbachev remains a compelling work of documentary filmmaking bolstered by excellent use of historical footage and a surprising amount of candor in its interviews; though not perfect, like Mikhail Gorbachev himself, it is with great sincerity that the film embraces the struggles and insecurities that come with fighting for something better.

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Review: Meeting Gorbachev
An engaged, thoughtful and occasionally biased look at the complex legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.