'Gorbachev. Heaven': Film Review

Gorbachev. Heaven
Courtesy of Studio Vertov
A poetic portrait of a poignant political afterlife.

Director Vitaly Mansky secures an intimate audience with the former Soviet premier whose democratic reforms helped end the Cold War.

A lyrical portrait of a former political giant in his twilight years, Vitaly Mansky's Gorbachev. Heaven is an unusually intimate docu-memoir that feels like an epitaph. Thirty years after his perestroika program of democratic reforms triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberated Eastern Europe from Communist tyranny and effectively ended the Cold War, former Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev is living in diminished circumstances with a bitterly contested legacy. His home is a palatial villa outside Moscow, part fortress, part mausoleum, which he only occupies on a temporary loan basis. There are echoes of Winston Churchill in his imposing presence nowadays, but overtones of King Lear, too: a deposed emperor, his powers fading.

Raised in the former Soviet Union, the Ukraine-born Mansky once worked for Russian state television, but he has become an increasingly outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian regimes in recent years via prize-winning documentaries such as Under The Sun (2015) and Putin's Witnesses (2018). His newest film builds on this critique by more oblique means, contrasting the hopeful promise of Gorbachev's reformist era with Russia's current backslide into authoritarian rule. A very human story with timely political bite, Gorbachev. Heaven won the Best Director prize at IDFA in early December. Its heavyweight star, coupled with Mansky's strong track record, should ensure plenty more festival play and healthy sales potential.

Gorbachev. Heaven is informal in style, yet it proves more engaging and revelatory than more conventionally journalistic efforts on the same theme, notably Werner Herzog's overly fawning Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Working solely with first-hand conversational and observational footage, Mansky deploys no archive material and relies only on brief screen footnotes to explain key background references such as Stalin and Lenin, presumably to aid younger viewers with scant historical knowledge.

Mansky has been a cordial acquaintance of Gorbachev for many years, and clearly holds him in high regard. This may explain how he managed to get such candid domestic access, capturing the frail 89-year-old dozing in his armchair, struggling to walk, muddling his words, then suddenly breaking into childlike giggles when he drops the F-bomb. But the director does not indulge Gorbachev with uncritical reverence, decrying his “cunning” evasions when addressing some of his more controversial decisions.

Their sharpest clash comes over the notorious “January Events” in Lithuania in 1991, when Soviet military forces tried to seize back control of the newly independent Baltic state, killing 14 civilians and injuring hundreds more. At the time, Gorbachev insisted nobody in Moscow gave orders to use force. Under Mansky's probing, he seems to grudgingly accept some blame. “Someone said I had to shoot them,” he shrugs. “I think I did the right thing... would you like me to be dragged to court?”

Gorbachev is also wary of discussing the messy collapse of the Soviet Union, which went far beyond his plans for managed reform from within. He clearly still harbors mixed feelings about his Communist past, admitting he was a devout Stalinist in his youth, before learning of the dictator's genocidal atrocities. “I still see myself as a socialist,” he tells Mansky. “Frankly, I still see Lenin as our God.” But he also admits that “people need freedom” and expresses bitter irony at being “betrayed and even cursed” by many of the Russian citizens he liberated from tyranny.

Still possessed of a robust ego and wily political instincts, Gorbachev dismisses former U.S. president Ronald Reagan as a “real dinosaur” and his own successor Boris Yeltin as an “impertinent” drunk. Tellingly, he never mentions Putin by name, and cautiously dodges questions about whether contemporary Russia is a dictatorship, but his frosty disdain for the Kremlin's current absolute ruler is tangible. He talks dolefully about his country going to hell and, in lighter moments, jokes about making plans to seize power again. In a witty visual motif, Mansky succeeds in making Putin a constant phantom menace in the film, his face repeatedly flickering from background TV screens while Gorbachev ruminates.

The other ghostly guest at this autumnal feast is Gorbachev's beloved wife Raisa, who died in 1999. He claims his life has lost all meaning since then, and insists he enjoyed being “henpecked” by his former First Lady, sweetening these romantic memories with lines of classic Russian poetry and antique Ukrainian folk songs. Late in the film, he takes Mansky on a pilgrimage to Raisa's grave and points out his own future resting place, alongside hers.

The lonely, echoing interiors of Gorbachev's villa are a gift to Mansky's team. Cinematographer Alexandra Ivanova frames these hushed spaces in muted watercolor shades, a Chekhovian country mansion with vague overtones of high-security prison. Mansky initially planned to shoot his entire documentary at this one location, but midway through filming Gorbachev's health deteriorates and he is transferred to a Moscow hospital for long-term treatment. “My strength is leaving me,” he concedes, tacitly acknowledging what most viewers have already surmised: that this film may yet prove to be his last will and testament.

In this moving final section, Gorbachev. Heaven moves beyond politically slanted documentary and becomes a kind of requiem. Even while Gorbachev lives on, Mansky seems to be prematurely mourning his passing in a very Russian way, with bittersweet nostalgia and wintry melancholy. After such a humane but rigorously unsentimental portrait, he has earned this lyrical coda, grieving not just for one man but for an entire nation.

Venue: International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam
Production companies: Studio Vertov, Hypermarket Film
Cast: Mikhail Gorbachev
Director: Vitaly Mansky
Screenwriters: Vitaly Mansky, Alexander Gelman
Producers: Natalia Manskaia, Filip Remunda, Vit Klusak
Cinematographer: Alexandra Ivanova
Editor: Yevgeny Rybalko
Music: Karlis Auzans
100 minutes