Meeting Gorbachev is a documentary by legendary director Werner Herzog and André Singer. It dives into Herzog’s sit-down conversations with the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, Russian politician Mikhail Gorbachev. With an array of rare footage, interesting perspectives, and a clear direction guided by Werner Herzog’s narration, this documentary proves to be a breezy and interesting narrative, even for the non-political fan.
The film starts in classic Herzog fashion, taking a reflexive documentary approach, as we hear his voice preparing the crew for the shot and the beginning of his interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, drawing our attention to the filmmaking process. Herzog’s presence is immediately all over the documentary, not only because he is visible and can be seen conducting the interview, but he’s also narrating the events that we see, such as him and his team gifting Gorbachev sugar-free chocolate for his 87th birthday. For fans of the director, this approach is both a familiar and fun part of this documentary.
One of the strengths and interesting parts about the opening moments of Meeting Gorbachev is how it introduces the well-known politician to the audience, especially to those that are less familiar with the man. We hear very little about his accomplishments and upbringing. All we see is his mannerisms. Audiences get to see a gentle individual, who also shows a comedic side when he jokingly claims one of the crew members is trying to pick his pockets as he tries to mike up Gorbachev. It’s a successful way of endearing the protagonist of this story to the audience, and it makes you want to learn more about this man.
The documentary nicely flows through his rise to leadership, a journey that feels reminiscent to some sports stories, where a young man takes over from old figures that are set in their ways and incapable of seeing things from a new lens. Some excellent footage is included in the documentary to show the significance of certain milestones achieved by Gorbachev, such as the footage of a group of Norwegian’s visiting the famous building in Iceland where Gorbachev and president Ronald Reagan ended the cold war in 1986. Not only are they visiting the location, but they even attempt to re-enact the famous picture of the two politicians.
We also get interesting interviews from other political figures that worked with Gorbachev during his reign, and they help paint this image Herzog and André are creating of this heroic politician that thinks about the good of the people instead of his ego. Also, linking Gorbachev’s in-depth discussion about how he distanced Russia and other nations from nuclear weapons to the current political climate, makes the documentary a little more relevant, and even makes audiences long for a leader like Gorbachev.
Herzog’s use of long takes is another quality that consistently pops up throughout Meeting Gorbachev, and it is particularly effective when we watch the conversations between the director and politician. The former leader of the Soviet Union takes a lot of long pauses in between his answers, and with the long takes, we see these pauses. These moments create a sense of anticipation for the audience, which ensures that we are hanging on his every word.
The highlight of the documentary is without a doubt, the scene where Gorbachev discusses the passing of his wife because it’s at this moment he seems most relatable as we see him succumb to his emotions and acknowledge how difficult this part of his life was. The feeling of loss is universal, so whether you’re up to date on your political history or not, this moment connects with you on an emotional level. In addition to it being relatable, Gorbachev’s honesty during this scene is admirable and incredibly powerful, especially when he states that his life ended after the passing of his wife.
Although those moments between Herzog and Gorbachev stand out more than anything else in this film, we do not get enough of them. There’s far too much of Herzog’s voice as opposed to the man we are learning about, and the directors have overused the old footage that shows us past events, as there are large chunks in this film where we do not see or hear from the Russian politician. As one might expect, the film also dives into specific political debates in great detail, leaving those less knowledgeable feeling lost and confused as words and phrases go over their head.
Plus, Gorbachev’s only real moment of struggle seems to come when discussing the topic of his wife, the rest of the “difficult” moments never sound like they caused him much trouble. So the ease in which he discusses certain topics can start to feel a little dull due it lacking any urgency or hardship.
Ultimately, despite feeling a little imbalanced at times, Meeting Gorbachev is a success due to the mixture of great content that fills the ninety-minute duration. The characteristics of Gorbachev shine brightly, and his charm and honesty win you over before this documentary comes to an end.
Dir: Werner Herzog and André Singer
Scr: Werner Herzog
Featuring: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog
Prd: Svetlana Palmer
DoP: Yuri Barak
Music: Nicholas Singer
Runtime: 90 minutes
Meeting Gorbachev releases in UK cinemas on the 8th November.