When Michel Gondry directed Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, his offbeat 2013 interview documentary of Noam Chomsky, he was clear about the project’s particular timing. Gondry wanted to fast-track the movie because, frankly, he wanted enough time with Noam while his subject was still alive.
Though it’s never delineated as bluntly, a similar sense of temporal urgency permeates Werner Herzog’s latest doc, the compassionate and astute Meeting Gorbachev. Edited from three conversations with the eighth and last leader of the former Soviet Union over a six-month period, Meeting Gorbachev captures its 88-year-old protagonist in a candid twilight that could very well constitute his final long-form interview on the international stage.
As Herzog tells us in the first few minutes, Gorbachev suffers from diabetes, and endured a bout of hospitalization shortly before their final meeting. (It turns out Gondry’s concerns, at least, were premature; six years after his doc, Chomsky is still with us at 90.)
In contrast to Errol Morris’ confrontational tête-à-têtes with Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, Herzog and Gorbachev are clearly of a similar ideology. Meeting Gorbachev seems born of a desire to reassess its subject’s complicated legacy through the lens of nearly 30 years of hindsight — and, just as vitally, to make a new case for Gorbachev’s importance to global security for the generation that didn’t live through the thaw of the Cold War.
Herzog and his co-director and longtime collaborator, André Singer, build that case through traditional documentary grammar. They intersperse the central conversation with copious stock footage of Gorbachev’s ambitious rise to power and his diplomatic breakthroughs with the West, and with new interviews with then-U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh, and Horst Teltschik, Germany’s national security adviser during the period of his country’s reunification.
Herzog’s predilection for wildness in both his subjects and his style is well-documented, but Meeting Gorbachev disarms him. A history lesson as much as a work of art and entertainment — it was, in fact, produced by the History Channel — the film finds its director on his best behavior. This is Herzog’s most disciplined, sobering doc since 2011’s Into the Abyss, but this shouldn’t dissuade his die-hards. The movie’s insights are rich, and at least one element of its delivery method is doggedly eccentric.
I’m referring to Herzog’s signature voice-over narration, oft-parodied but seldom truly captured. His slow, Teutonic intensity lends profundity to even banal descriptions of place and time, ensuring that lines such as “here in the cemetery, all of (Gorbachev’s) family has been laid to rest” are denuded of any vestige of sentimentality. Even some of the details of Gorbachev’s political ascent are presented in absurdist-theater terms Herzog doubtlessly appreciated, such as the string of wizened, short-lived Soviet leaders who preceded the upstart Gorbachev, their tenures approximating those of Spinal Tap drummers. Herzog calls his most direct predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, “the last of the fossils.”
For Gorbachev, no subject is off the table, although his reflections of his roles in world affairs come off as alternately proud and defensive. Discussion ranges from the cataclysm of Chernobyl to his groundbreaking applications of glasnost and perestroika, to his contribution to nuclear weapons reduction, an issue on which his moral clarity is unimpeachable.
Gorbachev is not a “sexy” change maker in recent geopolitical history. His story is one of persistence, his achievements gained through patience and incrementalism — his hand gently tapping a queue of political dominoes as they topple, over a period of years, toward greater freedom and transparency.
Such progressivism is, of course, so last century. There is some mention of Russo-American relations today, but it’s mostly indirect, which is all that’s needed. The contemporary decline in both nations, each ruled at present by lawless autocrats, renders it seemingly impossible for genuine international collaboration free of illegality and kompromat.
“I am not vengeful,” Gorbachev says to Herzog, offering an explanation of his 1991 acquiescence to the coup that unceremoniously removed him from office, and about which he is most tight-lipped. “I regret it to this day.”
This is the tragedy of Gorbachev, of which Herzog alludes late in the film. He may have replaced the socialist fossils, but from today’s jaundiced lens, he is the new relic — a good man, still kicking if not screaming, in rotten times.
MEETING GORBACHEV. Directors: Werner Herzog, André Singer; Distributor: The Orchard; now playing at Lake Worth Playhouse and Coral Gables Art Cinema