Movie Review: Meeting Gorbachev (2019)
I learned a lot. But enough?
I‘ll start with the superficial: I had no idea Mikhail Gorbachev was so good-looking as a young man. In photos from the ’40s and ‘50s, he seems almost movie-star handsome. At the least, a B-actor in underrated noirs for Warner Bros. He would’ve given Sterlling Hayden a run for his money.
An endless chain of catastrophes
I didn’t know he was from the provinces, or the story about his rise: how he didn’t really achieve national attention until the late 1970s. The doc also made me flash back to Ronald Reagan’s incredible good fortune of coming into office as a slate of Soviet general secretaries were dying. We were used to the opposite. Brezhnev came into power in Oct. 1964 and ruled until his death in Nov. 1982—so through the presidencies of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Five presidents. We kept changing, they stayed the same. Then suddenly they kept changing and we stayed the same. During Reagan’s first five years in office, three General Secretaries took the dirt nap: Brezhnev in ’82, Andropov in ’84 and Chernenko in March 1985. I’d completely forgotten about Chernenko, to be honest, which makes me think of this line from “Doonesbury”: “Do you realize I have absolutely no memory of the Ford years?” Chernenko was the Soviet’s Ford.
I think all of this helped Reagan. How could it not? It was like he was slaying enemies. He stood tall, they dropped.
Director Werner Herzog has fun with this—trotting out the funeral march again and again, as if he’s reveling in the deaths of these Soviet leaders who divided his country for so long. It’s kid-in-the-back-row stuff—and works. The audience at the Seattle International Film Festival roared.
This is a different kind of Herzog, by the way. You know those mock motivational posters that include nihilistic quotes from Herzog? “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder” or “Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events.” Yeah, we don’t see that Herzog. It’s not just that he isn’t a nihilist, he’s a fan, and unabashed. He brings Gorby gifts: sugar-free chocolate from London. I think he even tells Gorbachev he loves him. For what he did. Or didn’t do.
That’s the tragedy, or maybe the tragic irony, of Gorbachev. He set in motion glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), which led to rebellions against the Soviet Empire, which he could’ve ended with a word. He didn’t. He began a movement that swept him away. He felt the Soviet Union needed greater democracy and it led to Putin, who managed to undermine the world’s great democracy.
I’d forgotten about the putsch, too. Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were on vacation in Crimea when eight older members of the CCCP tried to seize power. They claimed Gorbachev was ill but he taped a message for the world that got out. People protested, Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, took advantage, and afterwards Gorbachev seemed a diminished figure. He misread the Soviet satellites. He underestimated nationalism. Or maybe he thought the Soviet was the nationalism.
Does Herzog’s Gorby-love get in the way of the story? I don’t think he gets enough into his post-Soviet life, while his interviews aren’t particularly enlightening and a little dissonant. They’re speaking different languages—Gorby Russian, Herzog English—and Gorbachev will finish a story with his face expectant of the payoff from the listener; then he’ll have to hold that position awkwardly for a while until his words are translated. Some part of me thinks Herzog likes this awkwardness. It’s part of an endless chain of catastrophes.
Gorbachev is heavier now, and slower, and I don’t think he’s long for this world. He’s probably grateful. The love of his life, Raisa, died in 1999, shortly before Putin took power. He wants to join her. In either the afterlife or oblivion.
Some of the most powerful moments from the doc are actually from another doc, “Gorbachev. After Empire” by Vitaliy Manskiy, which shows the tears Gorbachev shed at Raisa’s funeral, as well as the man himself puttering around the yard, putting lids on trash cans, in 2000 or 2001. The man who could’ve kept the Cold War going with a word or gesture. He’s not appreciated enough for not saying that word or making that gesture.