Greetings again from the darkness. Werner Herzog has been one of the most prolific filmmakers over the past six decades, and with so many projects, it’s not surprising that his films range from very good (AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD) to fascinating (GRIZZLY MAN) to disappointing (QUEEN OF THE DESERT). With this latest documentary, co-directed with Andre Singer, Herzog sits down for interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev three times over a six month period, and yet somehow squanders this rare opportunity by ensuring his own mug gets equal screen time, and his own voice even more.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the 8th and final President of the Soviet Union and is considered to be one of the most influential political figures of the second half of the twentieth century. He is now 87 years old, and his diabetes likely contributes to his puffy, bloated look and his recent hospital stay prior to his third interview with Herzog. The film walks us through a chronological look back at Gorbachev’s life and his beginnings as the son of peasants. His father became a decorated war hero, and upon returning to his war-torn country, offered this to young Mikhail: “We fought until we ran out of fight. That’s how you must live.”
Having joined the Communist Party at an early age, Mikhail went on to study at the prestigious Moscow State University, which soon led him into politics. He was a fast riser and a true man of the people … unusual for the Soviet Union. We see many interesting photos and clips, including video of a senile Leonid Brezhnev presenting Gorbachev with an award. The film breezes through the 3 year period which saw funerals for Brezhnev (1982) and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. These deaths led to Gorbachev becoming the youngest leader in Soviet history as General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Union.
Herzog as an interviewer spends entirely too much time on screen and narrating. We have come to hear what Gorbachev has to say, not take Herzog’s word that he’s authentic, or to waste time with the presentation of a box of sugar-free chocolate. It’s a bit of a fluff piece, and Herzog is certainly no Mike Wallace; however, it is quite informative to go through the timeline of Gorbachev’s life.
We are reminded of Gorbachev’s reform platform that included Perestroika (re-structuring) and Glasnost (transparent government), and there are clips of Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, George Shultz and James Baker offering their insight into dealings with this most unusual Soviet leader. Gorbachev does offer his thoughts on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the tearing down of the wall and reunification. His historic “breakthrough” meeting and subsequent handshake with Ronald Reagan took place at Reykjavik, Iceland, in a building that is now a tourist attraction.
Ever the optimist, Gorbachev still firmly believes the world should be rid of nuclear weapons, and this segment provides some contemporary context as this topic has reared its head again in modern politics. He bluntly offers his take: “People who don’t understand cooperation and disarmament should quit politics.” He serves up a hot take on America after the Cold War ended, but is given little time to discuss Helmut Kohl and the 10 Points of Light.
The 1991 coup where Boris Yeltsin seized the moment is clearly still painful for Gorbachev, and Herzog offers up a soft landing by ending the film with personal and legacy topics … what he terms the tragedy of Gorbachev. The love of his life, his wife Raisa, is ever-present even after her death, and he understands that many consider him a traitor and responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. His idealism for a social democracy remains impressive and is likely the reason his story is more humanistic than political. Looking back, he simply states, “We tried.”