Full Frame Review: Meeting Gorbachev

There were was once a time when Americans didn’t have to be weary of a leader inside the Kremlin. To be more accurate, there was only one man that held the power of the Soviet Union/Russia that wasn’t out to crush or cause chaos in the West. Mikhail Gorbachev took control of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s after both previous leaders barely lived a year, Gorbachev took on a country that had serious issues. He sought to change things up with two policies named glasnost and perestroika. He sought to bring a new openness and efficiency in the country. And things went bad for him. Iconic director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) sits down with him to get a deeper picture of the man in Meeting Gorbachev.

Over the course of three conversations Herzog allows Gorbachev to examine his life and outlook on power. The film isn’t just two men sitting next to each other having a 90 minute chat. There’s interviews with people who were part of the events that shaped the leader’s time. There’s lot of historical video. Very quickly Herzog gets a sense of what drove Gorbachev as a leader. He recounts how after World War II, Gorbachev’s father was legendary for driving a combine harvesters in the wheat fields. The first two years there was very little to harvest. But the third year had a massive bumper crop. This lead to Gorbachev and his father behind the wheel for marathon sessions. They didn’t want to leave anything in the fields. This feat led to the father and son respectively receiving Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. The son was able to use his reward to get into the communist party and university. His good work gets him named the country’s agricultural where he has to figure out what’s going wrong with the food supply. He shocks his hosts in Hungary when he arrives on a fact finding mission and focuses on getting answers. They’re used to people in power using this as an excuse to have a vacation away from the prying eyes of Moscow.

This is the most useful picture of Gorbachev when Herzog talks about his time as the leader in Moscow. It truly makes sense why the leader changed the world during the years. Why he was willing to talk to President Reagan about culling back each country’s nuclear weapon stockpiles. This is why he wanted to bring an end to the Cold War. Why he didn’t send his troops to Hungary and East Germany to reinforce the borders with bullets into those tearing down the wall and clipping fences. When discussion of the coup comes up, he ponders if he should have had Boris Yeltsin sent away. But admits that wasn’t in his nature. He was not there to destroy communism and break up the Soviet Union. But it happened. He was there to feed the people and not kill them like the despots before him. He wanted a system reformed so it worked for the people.

Herzog is rather restrained during his talks with the former leader. There is a sense of humor at moments especially the multiple funerals of the people before Gorbachev. You probably forgot about the one leader who had his hospital room faked to look like he was getting around town and not deathly ill. Herzog is rather trusting of his subject. At first he does have his doubts about Gorbachev when he gets told about his first encounter with a German family. But he realizes that the man isn’t about blowing smoke to suck up to journalists. Herzog and co-director Andre Singer give a personal primer as to the former leader who’s reformist ways aren’t close to what we’re dealing with out of Moscow now. And we are reminded of that face in charge as Putin arrives at Raisa Gorbachev’s funeral. You can see the contrast of their character in this brief exchange. It’s a chilling reminder of how quickly Gorbachev’s reforms were shutdown in the new Russia.

Sadly Werner Herzog didn’t show up for a Q&A so there was no chance to ask any questions about his time with the former leader.

Meeting Gorbachev was reviewed at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

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