By Liam Lacey
The intellectual juices start to flow just hearing the premise of Meeting Gorbachev, a documentary which features the gloomy, sardonic German filmmaker Werner Herzog — famous for his films about impossible dreamers — interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who dreamed of reinventing the Soviet Union and ending up triggering its dissolution, along with the end of the Cold War.
Because the potential is extraordinary, it’s a surprise that the film, co-directed by Herzog and Andre Singer, is so conventional and enthusiastic, bordering on adoring.
The film is formed around three interviews over a six-month period between the then-87-year-old Gorbachev and the director, now in his mid-seventies, who is an unabashed fan. Extensive archival footage sets up the ascension of Gorbachev to the top of the Soviet pile after a series of elderly leaders — Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko — died between 1982 and 1987.
Facing an increasingly expensive arms race, economic stagnancy, and the 1986 Chernobyl crisis, Gorbachev withdrew from the Afghan war and went on a campaign of reforms known as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). He also opened up relations with the world leaders again, making significant achievements in cutting back on nuclear weapons.
Gorbachev’s intellectual flexibility and cordial relations with enemies (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan) and the presence of his academic, glamorous wife, Raisa, made him a figure of intrigue and popular celebrity. Brief interviews with other contemporaries — former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz — touch on Gorbachev’s all-business style and acuity.
Only Lech Wałęsa, the former Polish president, seems free to comment on Gorbachev’s lack of foresight: “Communism cannot be reformed, only dismantled,” he says, as he explains how the Polish independence movement supported Gorbachev’s reforms because he knew it would mean the end of the Soviet Union, an outcome Gorbachev views as his greatest failure.
And what of Gorbachev now? Heavy-set, slow in speech, Gorbachev is cordial but careful, and not at all the cuddly bear Herzog seems to want him to be. Herzog tells him, frankly, he is “loved” in Germany for leading to re-unification and he presents him a basket of sugar-free chocolates, which Gorbachev examines as if they were rock samples.
The old statesman continues to defend most of his record, insisting he wanted both “more democracy” and “more socialism” for the Soviet Union and takes credit for the arms-limitation agreements with Ronald Reagan. The one time he sounds like an old-style Russian dictator is when he says, of his successor Boris Yeltsin, “I should have sent him off somewhere.”
Gorbachev offers no direct comment on the present state of affairs beyond the nuclear powers; there is his assertion that “Cold War cannot be a form of international relations. People who don’t understand the importance of cooperation and disarmament should quit politics.”
Herzog pushes Gorbachev to tears when he raises the subject of Raisa, who died 20 years ago, but what may be intended as a touchingly human moment risks feeling opportunistic, an obvious way to get past the old warrior’s guard.
Meeting Gorbachev. Directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. With Mikhail Gorbachev, George Shultz, Lech Wałęsa and Miklós Németh. Opens May 17 in Toronto, Vancouver, Waterloo; May 24 in Ottawa, Victoria, St. Catherine's; May 31 in Calgary; and with other cities announced soon.