Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the final functional leader of the Soviet Union (as President and General Secretary of the Communist Party), now resembles a sad, solitary character from a Tolstoy novella. He was once one of the two most powerful men in the world, but his sunset years have mostly been spent isolated in his dacha.
History has passed him by and his beloved Raisa Maximovna passed away well over 20 years ago. Yet, nobody can deny he profoundly altered the course of Russian history. Vitaly Mansky, the Ukrainian-born Russian documentarian now based in Riga, invited the former General Secretary to take stock of his complicated legacy in the documentary “Gorbachev.Heaven,” which premiereed on Friday, Jan. 28 on OVID.tv, the independent film streaming service.
The Gorbachev whom Mansky initially finds is a frail man in sickly health, but he still maintains a sharp command of his faculties. He can recite classic Russian poetry and the romantic songs of his youth, at length and with great accuracy.
For the first half hour or so, “Gorbachev.Heaven” appears to be more of a contemplation of loneliness than a political reckoning, especially when the former Soviet leader admits his life has largely lost meaning since the death of his wife. True, there seem to be plenty of servants to wait on him, but viewers see little warmth or affection in their interactions.
However, the film takes on “Frost/Nixon” dimensions when Mansky starts politely but firmly grilling him on his tenure as leader of the USSR. In particular, Mansky presses Gorbachev on his contradictory statements regarding his desires to hold the Soviet Union together and also grant the Baltic States the right of self-governance.
Clearly, Mansky is fascinated by Gorbachev’s contrasting images as both a liberator and a Communist Party loyalist. In contrast, the question does not seem to interest “Gorby” at all. He even gets a bit testy when Mansky keeps pushing the point of contention. Perhaps he is so surprised, because he just expects to be automatically venerated in Europe and despised in his native Russia, leaving him unaccustomed to Mansky’s tough but good-faith line of questioning.
Based on the documentarian’s past filmography, Mansky could arguably be the perfect filmmaker to take on Gorbachev, both as a man and an icon. While an employee of Russian television, Mansky just so happened to film Yeltsin’s final days in office and the rise of his hand-picked successor, Putin, from an intimately close perspective. He later reassembled that often chilling footage into the revealing “Putin’s Witnesses.”
He also generated the ire of both the Russian and North Korean regimes with “Under the Sun,” his expose of average life in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Ostensibly, “Sunrise/Sunset,” his day-in-the-life profile of the Dalai Lama is nonpolitical, but any sympathetic coverage of His Holiness carries political implications with Xi’s Chinese Communist Party.
Fittingly, Putin’s shadow looms large throughout his latest doc. Often, the audience can see him appearing Big Brother-like on the muted television screen behind Gorbachev during their extended interview sequences. Mansky frequently tries to get the elder statesman to go on record with his opinion of the current Russian president-for-life. Although Gorbachev always diplomatically demurs, his facial expressions are telling.
Mansky is a great interviewer, because he is respectful at all times, but never a pushover. That consistently leads to interesting exchanges and telling moments. Granted, Mansky somewhat struggles to wrap the film up, but the centerpiece interviews are riveting and loaded with historical significance. “Under the Sun” probably remains Mansky’s best film to date, but “Gorbachev.Heaven” is almost certainly the most successful documentary examination of the man and his role in history, at least so far.
This is a quiet film, utilizing conventional nonfiction filmmaking techniques, but it offers a lot of insight into Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Somehow, Mansky manages to inspire both sympathy and skepticism in his treatment of the former General Secretary. It probably burnishes Gorbachev’s image, but it does not sanctify him. That is a real testament to the well-balanced thoughtfulness of his approach to his subject. Very highly recommended, “Gorbachev.Heaven.”
Director: Vitaly Mansky
Starring: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: 2020
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5