Werner Herzog’s look at the Soviet Union’s last leader is fascinatingly apolitical, but lacks insight as a result.
It doesn’t take long for Werner Herzog’s latest to get straight to the point. “I am a German,” he says as he sits down with Mikhail Gorbachev. “The first German that met you probably wanted to kill you.” But Herzog, who directed his latest with André Singer, has little interest in sensationalized politics. It’s all about point of view. This viewpoint, as it happens, is a counter-pendulum, but not against a greater enemy, a larger evil, or another region. It’s against aggrandized politics. And while that’s fascinating, it can’t decide if it wants to use its title subject as a focus or as a symptom of a larger issue.
The subject, of course, is the last president of the USSR. As the film begins, the Russian speaks Russian. The German speaks English, the subtitles link the two, and the mahogany setting makes it feel as if Diane Sawyer could sit down next to them at any moment. But this is unmistakably a Herzog film, complete with his droll delivery and bouts of wry (and even sardonic) narration. Well, it’s very much a Herzog film that falls into the trappings of a more standard documentarian, braising through Gorbachev’s early life.
The film touches on his agricultural childhood and college introduction to communism in what feel like the same sentence. It dryly but humorously looks at his seemingly divine rise to power, much of which happened because his successors dropped like dominoes in a matter of years. Aside from Herzog’s sinewy delivery, much of Meeting Gorbachev feels like a regurgitated textbook with lots to recount but not much to say.
It’s jarring at times, then, to realize the film isn’t necessarily about Gorbachev’s life. It’s about his legacy. That needn’t be in what he did, though: much of it is in how Herzog sees him; some of its most tantalizing moments look at how the West’s love of aggrandized politics repaints the past. American hegemony isn’t much of a big talking point in Meeting Gorbachev, but it’s closest to its heart. As Herzog looks at the United States under Ronald Reagan and alludes to the clash in economic structures, something deeper bubbles to the surface.
The dots are nice to connect, but that isn’t because Herzog has a ton to say.
Whether it pops before making an impact is another issue all together. The film’s makeup fails to humanize Gorbachev as much as it ought to early on, making Herzog’s arguments opaque and easy. The picture even works on a sort of chapter structure, touching on more obligatory points (e.g. his childhood) before giving a crash course on the Cold War (just in case, ya know, the viewer didn’t already learn it or couldn’t read it elsewhere). Then comes other material, such as the aforementioned and seemingly timeless U.S./USSR diplomacy issues.
That, however, wilts thanks to an underwhelming one-on-one interview that Meeting Gorbachev continuously cuts back to. It’s a wraparound, a series of basic questions on Herzog’s part that undercuts the film’s central thesis. If the documentary wants to examine the man’s legacy, it falters in how fast it skims through his relationships with other countries, which in turn gives a disappointingly easy and Western viewpoint without much to challenge viewers. The dots are nice to connect, but that isn’t because Herzog has a ton to say.
Instead, that’s inherent to the material. Meeting Gorbachev tries to paint him as a real person just as much as a politician, but without enough focus on his personal relationships or life in recent years, the film only gives him a baseline decency. He doesn’t give many hard-hitting answers, but truth be told, I don’t blame him. The film doesn’t give him the opportunity to say anything too deep, and as watchable as it is, it makes basic sense look like something out of this world.
Maybe that can feel like the case sometimes, but Herzog doesn’t seem to see it that way. His greater aspirations—be they subjective, historical, or a rectification of revisionist history—are more rewarding to ponder than to watch his droning voice try to put together.