A personal conversational interview between German director Werner Herzog and Russian politician Mikhail Gorbachev serves as the point of entry into the politician’s personal recollections of his career, the Soviet Union, Russia, and the political climate of the world.
As one of the older Millennials out there I was pretty young during the 80s. I remember getting to see a piece of the Berlin Wall which was displayed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, which is located in my home town. I grew up overhearing the name Gorbachev on the news or adult conversations which never much interested a little 8 year old boy.
As a result, while I was never afraid of Russia, the Cold War, or had any knowledge of the politics in other parts of the world at the time, I never really knew anything about Gorbachev except that he was a world leader from a time before I was interested in politics. Knowing nothing about him but being interested in him because of his involvement with politics when I was younger was all the prompting I needed to see a film about him from one of my all time favorite directors, Werner Herzog (“Aguirre”) when I saw the screening listing for the Traverse City Film Festival.
This film is one of the most informative and interesting documentaries which I have seen. If I were to compare it to another documentary it would be like a cross between “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “The Civil War.” On the one hand it is a character study but on the other it is the story of the fall of the USSR. Through it all, we have Werner Herzog casting his own brand of eccentric existentialism over the film.
Describing the film is hard because it is someone’s life story and as I found it fascinating, I would love to expound it for you. That would be tragic though as Herzog has already told the story through film and in a much better and meaningful way than I could manage.
The story of Gorbachev’s life is certainly very different than I expected. I suppose part of that is because of the natural distrust Americans tend to have still in our films and TV as a remnant from the 80s. What I found out instead was that he was a very admirable man, flawed to be sure, but admirable. He had tremendous love for his country and most importantly the people of that country.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is Gorbachev’s involvement in the ending of the Cold War. Herzog does a great job of showing how vital it is for world leaders to work together toward the common ends of security and life for all people. One of the great takeaways from the movie is really how terrible a force personal greed and power grabbing is when it is allowed into national politics.
As I walked out of the film I couldn’t help but think how desperately short of that kind of politician or even person our world seems to be. Politicians who can learn from their mistakes and change their attitudes for the good of the people rather than for their own personal gains seem to be not so much the norm or the minority anymore. Sometimes they feel more like the extreme outliers in a world shaped more by grabbing for resources and table scrap economics for those who need help the most.
From his humble beginnings as a Farmer to his rise to the most powerful man in the USSR, Gorbachev never forgot the starvation he and his village endured after WW2. His sense of responsibility, personal responsibility for his people’s well being guided every aspect of his work toward nuclear disarmament, his study of agri cultural methods in other countries, and even his decision to be involved in this film.
This film taps into our angst, depression, frustration, and apathy toward political events and climates and seeks to soothe our aching bones. It tries to hold up some hope for what we should be looking for in our leaders and dares to ask us to keep looking, keep hoping, and never give up on our fellow Americans. Never give up on peace, in our own hearts, in our country, and in our capital.
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