‘Meeting Gorbachev’: Werner Herzog Interviews The Soviet Leader In One Of The Year’s Best Docs [TIFF Review]

Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy is that of being the eighth and final President of the Soviet Union, but this often misunderstood leader had a much more significant role in the world stage. Prolific director Werner Herzog‘s powerful documentary “Meeting Gorbachev” tries to paint a picture of a leader haunted by a never fully completed vision of a utopian, capitalist-driven USSR, one which, the director shows, had incredible similarities to today’s European Union.

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Herzog’s film, one of the very best non-fiction works he’s given us, has the filmmaker interviewing the 87-year-old Gorbachev in a film that ambitiously tries to show how the new world order was formed right before and after the Soviet collapse under Gorbachev’s leadership.

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Seen through the eyes of this fascinating historical figure, Herzog never balks at asking the tough questions. He meets his match in Gorbachev, who, despite being at the twilight of his life,  still has a witty sense of humor and the sharpest memory for his historical bouts with not just the Americans, but the inner enemies of his own confederation.

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The questions being posed here are tough and unflinching and put a notably important political and historical figure to the test as he reminisces about the experiences he had during his childhood which shaped his ideals for the utopian Soviet nation he had always envisioned.

Gorbachev was interviewed three separate times by Herzog and co-director André Singer, totaling six hours of footage, and you can sense Gorbachev becoming more and more comfortable as the interview(s) go along chronologically, and the realization by Gorbachev that Herzog really knows his Soviet history.

The former president gets teary-eyed when speaking about the indescribable loss of Raisa, his wife of 42 years and the love of his life, and how his vision of a united Soviet Union, unconstrained by barriers and corruption, collapsed before his very eyes. In fact, Gorbachev admits still being haunted to this day about his failure to maintain the Soviet Union.

When he came into power in 1981, after the death of two Soviet presidents in two years, he was unlike any leader before him. Gorbachev reached out to the population and spoke to the farmers and coal workers that he knew were the forgotten men and women of the country’s economy. Even more shocking, his willingness to cooperate with the Americans, which scared the KGB, and ended with the now infamous coup against him and his family where they were held hostage at their cottage house. Propagandist soviet media told the populace that Gorbachev was terminally ill and wouldn’t be able to continue his duties as president. He tried to sneak in the message, via a recorded VHS, that he was just fine and ready to return.

Herzog uses the stunning archival footage to envelop us into how the USSR, from its inception down to its last few breaths, came to its inevitable collapse under Gorbachev’s leadership. Some of the images are stunning; From the unmitigated catastrophe of the Chernobyl crisis to the rebellious rise of Soviet countries, standing hand in hand, border to border, in resistance to their lack of freedom. Herzog has made the definitive film about the collapse that eventually led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

It’s in the final few moments when Gorbachev is ousted, against his will, that the film turns into a Greek tragedy, as the leader reflects on how he could have done much more to prevent the collapse and make the USSR flourish into a full-blown cooperative nation with globalist ideals. He admits, his failure to enact this vision still haunts him to this day; as he puts it, “We didn’t finish the job of democracy in Russia.”

Gorbachev turns out to be one of the most fascinating political figures of our time. All thanks to Herzog’s keen eye at having a continuous fluid flow to the story and his subject’s willingness to lay bare in front of an audience, this is one of the most important documentaries of the year because it still feels fresh and relevant to our times. [B+]

Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival here.