German director and intellectual provocateur Werner Herzog finds someone smarter in the room than he is with this laudatory profile of retired head of state Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who from 1985 to 1992, first as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and then as the U.S.S.R.'s president, ushered Russia and Europe's satellite socialist republics through perestroika, reforms so seismic they altered the map of almost 15 percent of the global landmass. When Gorbachev came to power Russia was fraying, its industries in disrepair and its economy flailing; with widespread suffering and shortages, rapid fundamental change was urgently needed, especially after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster that revealed a previously hidden level of systemic incompetence. Gorbachev chose the path of openness, or glasnost, first by visiting Soviet Hungary to learn from its economic model of surplus.
He also improved relationships with western European leaders; explored the possibilities of democratization; and reduced Cold War tensions at the Reykjavik Summit on nuclear disarmament with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Toward the end of Gorbachev's tenure, while the still-committed socialist was vacationing in the Crimea, the Soviet empire was dissolved in a coup d'etat; although the demise of the Iron Curtain was widely celebrated, the doors of the Kremlin were now open to self-serving bureaucrats and oligarchs. If his documentary approaches hagiography, Herzog can be forgiven for his hero worship of the statesman so instrumental in the reunification of Germany, a politician who was born to rural peasants and never forgot that the people come first. Andre Singer codirected; with Lech Walesa and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. In English and subtitled Russian, German, and Polish.