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Review: Meeting Gorbachev

May 18, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Werner Herzog sits down with Mikhail Gorbachev in his latest documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, which he co-directed with André Singer, offering a portrait of the former and final leader of the USSR that allows him to reflect upon how his monumental political legacy helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union.

The film’s basic structure is fairly simple; it’s a conversation between the two men who sit across from each other, shot in a standard angle/reverse angle style, with one speaking English and the other Russian. Politics remain the key focus of their talk, but some more personal matters are discussed as well.

Gorbachev was born into a family of poor farmers and joined the Communist Party as a young man, before graduating from law school and starting to rise through the political ranks in various administrations. He travelled around the country and was able to see the devastating effects that Joseph Stalin’s reign had upon the working class, and supported the de-Stalinization methods started by subsequent Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev.

Gorbachev remains insistent that, while many viewed the end of the Cold War as an American victory, it was only possible due to the cooperation of both nations. The film also spends a fair bit of time focusing on his efforts to denuclearize, which were opposed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but gained support from American President Ronald Reagan, whom he famously met with in Iceland in 1986. That famous handshake photo between the two leaders is briefly touched upon by Herzog.

Herzog’s classically droll voiceover narration provides a fine accompaniment to the central conversation, taking us through a condensed history of the Soviet Union during the non-interview scenes of Meeting Gorbachev, explaining how decades of political corruption helped pave the way for him to become leader and ultimately reform the nation, moving Russia away from communism and helping bring in more of a market economy. But Gorbachev insists that it was socialism that he was aiming towards, not capitalism or communism.

Herzog has clear admiration for his subject, concluding early on that the former leader is completely genuine in his intentions, and at times the film does feel overly fawning and even a bit simplistic in its line of questioning. By nature of its construction, the film is also a little dry. But simply as a portrait of a politician who helped alter the course of history, Meeting Gorbachev offers an interesting chance to hear a highly influential former world leader discuss his accomplishments first hand.

Meeting Gorbachev is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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