Former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev gets his due in “Meeting Gorbachev,” an engaging and touching valedictory to one of the most pivotal figures of the 20th century. The man who helped end the Cold War, who advanced nuclear disarmament and was politically sidelined at a crucial point in his country’s history may not be well known by younger generations in America. But in Germany, where “Meeting Gorbachev” was produced, he’s a hero. “I love you,” Werner Herzog, the film’s co-director, says to his subject at one point.
That’s not considered strictly permissible, from a journalistic point of view. But it’s one of many disarmingly transparent moments in “Meeting Gorbachev,” which starts with Herzog assuming that Gorbachev still harbors resentment for Germans because of the devastation they visited upon the U.S.S.R. during World War II. On the contrary, Gorbachev assures him. He met German neighbors when he was a child growing up in a small agricultural town, and they made ginger cookies he adored. Anyone who made something that delicious, he says, can’t be that bad.
Such is the character — open-minded, resolutely un-tribal, supremely relaxed — that shines through in “Meeting Gorbachev,” which reviews Gorbachev’s steady political rise through the Soviet Communist Party; his visionary programs of perestroika and glasnost; his relationships with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; and the cascade of events that started with independence movements in the Baltic states and ended with the shambolic dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and Gorbachev’s disastrous removal from office. Interviewing former U.S. secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker, as well as their contemporaries in Europe, Herzog and co-director Andre Singer put Gorbachev at the center of events that are too often framed solely as American victories. “We all won,” Herzog says philosophically. “Meeting Gorbachev” is an exercise in what-if, as viewers contemplate what might have been had the former Soviet leader been able to complete his project, despite its contradictions. “More democracy — that was our first and foremost goal,” Gorbachev explains, before adding, “I also wanted more socialism!”
Now approaching 90 and in ill health, Gorbachev presents an enormously poignant figure, still mourning his late wife, Raisa, and alarmed at efforts to reignite the arms race. A brief shot of Vladimir Putin at Raisa’s funeral only points up some frustrating omissions in the film: Herzog never asks Gorbachev about Putin, about contemporary Russian politics or such present-day concerns as Ukraine, cyberwarfare and political destabilization in the West. Still, “Meeting Gorbachev” is valuable on its own terms, if only for the chance to remind viewers that history may not always be made by the Great Man, but it’s sometimes irrevocably changed by good ones.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. In English, Russian and German with subtitles. Contains nothing objectionable. 92 minutes.