“I am a German,” Werner Herzog informs Mikhail Gorbachev at the beginning of their first interview. “And the first German you ever met probably wanted to kill you.” And thus, we’re off and running with Meeting Gorbachev, Herzog and André Singer’s documentary profile of the last leader of the USSR, combining footage from their three conversations with archival footage and commentary by observers on the political scene. For those of us with terrible public school world history educations, it’s a detailed and informative recap of the dismantling of the Soviet Union – not, as so many documentaries would tell you, the result of a couple of events and sound bytes, but a collection of intersecting independence movements. And it’s a compelling piece of portraiture, clearly done from a place of admiration and respect.
But as with so much of Herzog’s recent non-fiction work, the most engaging passages are those in which the filmmaker simply can’t resist sniffing around in the footnotes and margins at something peculiar that catches his fancy: the darkly funny story of the parade of dying leaders that preceded Gorbachev (he uses the funeral dirge as a semi-comic refrain); the footage of a senile Breshnev trying and failing to present Gorbachev with a medal; and a very funny clip from Hungarian television of the fall of the Iron Curtain getting buried in the evening newscast. “Their lead story was about slugs,” Herzog notes, bemused.
Errol Morris opens his new documentary American Dharma by placing Steve Bannon in a series of what amount to hero shots, aping images from Twelve O’Clock High, one of his favorite films. Morris and his subject talk about movies quite a bit in the course of the film – it’s about their only common language – but he’s not just being cute here. He’s allowing us to see Bannon as he sees himself, as the field general, the happy warrior, the mastermind. And then slowly but surely, over the course of the film, he chips away at that iconography to reveal what he really is: a small-minded, racist, buzzword-spouting arsonist.
American Dhama is, in many ways, the third part of a trilogy of Morris’ conversations with divisive political influencers, following his 2003 The Fog of War (with Robert McNamara) and the 2013 The Unknown Known (with Donald Rumsfeld). He occasionally pushes back against Bannon, in a way he didn’t in the earlier films, and sort of has to – if Dharma suffers in comparison, it’s because it’s telling a story that’s still in progress. This would be a very different movie in a few years, one presumes, and perhaps a better one. But then again, with any luck, Steve Bannon will be totally irrelevant by then anyway.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs through September 16.