Hot Docs ends with a bang and a laugh in "Khrushchev Does America," a straightforward historical doc about a very odd event that has been all-but-forgotten. Before the future of the world rested on a razor blade, before Kennedy, and before the Cold War started as we understand it today, Nikita Khrushchev took a two-week vacation ... in the United States. This visit took place just a few short years after the reign of Stalin, and a few short years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Narrated and chock-full of incredible news footage, this is a documentary that's easy to follow, and a fascinating memoir.
If you're like me, just hearing the name "Khrushchev" evokes images of a madman, anxiously yelling into a phone with a finger above a big red button that could end the world. Famously misquoted as saying "We will bury you" in the general direction of the west in the mid 1950s, there is no doubt that the Soviet Premier was despised, feared, and mythologized by the average American and the propagandists who wished him ill. He was Communism personified, and he was the enemy. So what the heck was Nikita thinking when he arrived on U.S. soil looking for good food, good company, and an all expenses paid trip to Disneyland? With that spirit in mind, "Khrushchev Does America" goes beyond history and humour and enters a realm of wonderment.
To start with, there's the man himself. The Premier is contrary to how many might perceive him to be, and the exceptional collection of American and Russian footage used in this film illustrates it clearly. Instead of the stern and stoic villain of Eastern Europe, Khrushchev is a jolly, plump man who likes show tunes and engaging in rollicking rounds of wit with his hosts. He was hot-tempered at times, and you risked his wrath if you condescended to him, but generally he was a good-spirited fellow, even in the chilliest of receptions.
And chilly is exactly how the beginning of his 1959 tour started out. With the official welcome going smoothly, the scenes of his cavalcade driving through New York City with thousands of silent onlookers in the wings is both haunting and bafflingly funny. Later moments chronicle an onstage war of words with the Mayor of Los Angeles, a media circus following him into the cornfields of Iowa, and an irate Khrushchev learning of his cancelled trip to the Magic Kingdom.
The real dramatic arc in this doc is how America falls in love with the tubby Russian the longer he stays and with each city he tours. The visit is credited as the first real wall-to-wall media story in the States, and for a population newly subjected to the world of television, not only does Khrushchev become a news story, he becomes a celebrity.
Years later, Kennedy and Khrushchev would face the possibility of World War III, but during the waning days of Eisenhower, for 14 days, Nikita Khrushchev was a beloved fascination in America, and it is a story well worth telling. For Russian/Canadian Director Tim Toidze, "Khrushchev Does America" is a triumph because it shines light on a forgotten chapter of history.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, Sun. May 4, 9:45 p.m.