Sometimes you don’t realize you needed a cinematic pairing until you see it, as with Werner Herzog interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev for the German filmmaker’s biographical doc of the consequential 20th century world leader, “Meeting Gorbachev.” The two met three times over six months — during which the ex-USSR president turned 87 — and the result is a surprisingly warm, eccentric, inviting inquiry into how a reformer turned enormous political capital into an opportunity to end the Cold War. (He’s still a tad bitter about America calling it a one-sided victory. “We both won!” he says.)
Herzog’s fondness for Gorbachev — still a quietly commanding, affable presence — is evident throughout, whether recounting the peasant-born farmer’s reputation-making agricultural prowess, the leadership that sought to solve his country’s crumbling infrastructure through perestroika and glasnost, the personality that charmed the world, or the nuclear disarmament efforts that still animate (and worry) him today. “Meeting Gorbachev,” which Herzog co-directed with frequent collaborator André Singer, is less a journalistic endeavor than an admirer’s tour — with room for blackly funny Herzog-ian touches in his choice of archival clip or patently demonic voice-over.
There could have been a meatier dissection of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which was, to Gorbachev’s mind, the tragedy of his thawing efforts, not the prize. But it’s in a touching sequence about the Russian’s love for his late wife Raisa where Herzog’s disarmingly cozy, heart-and-soul approach makes larger sense; in that partnership and closeness — at home, with heads of state, with his people — were Gorbachev’s truest, sincerest tools as a leader of significance.
In English, Russian, and German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Starts May 3, Landmark Nuart, West L.A.