THE STORY – Faced with the potential of Israel’s complete destruction, Prime Minister Golda Meir must navigate overwhelming odds, a skeptical cabinet, and a complex relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as millions of lives hang in the balance during the tense 19 days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
THE CAST – Helen Mirren, Camille Cottin, Liev Schreiber, Lior Ashkenazi & Dvir Benedek
THE TEAM – Guy Nattiv (Director) & Nicholas Martin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
Making a film about the history of the state of Israel is probably a lose-lose proposition. A veritable minefield of representational issues awaits anyone who dares to undertake such a venture. But Israel’s fight for its survival and right to exist is thrilling stuff no matter how you slice it – the battles were bloody, the political/military maneuvering was brilliant, and the cast of characters is unparalleled. Of course, the central figure in all this is Golda Meir, Israel’s Prime Minister, the first woman to hold such office in the modern Middle East. Guy Nattiv’s new film “Golda,” tells the story of one of the most harrowing times in the woman’s life (and considering that she grew up in Ukraine in the time of pogroms, she had her fair share of harrowing times): The infamous Yom Kippur War of 1973.
For those in the audience who have no knowledge of this history, the film opens with a newsreel montage detailing the establishment of the sovereign state of Israel in the wake of WWII and the wars that ensued in the region, which ended with Israel annexing Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian territory to establish a safety zone between itself and its surrounding enemies after the Six-Day War in 1967. We are then introduced to Golda (Helen Mirren), testifying before the Agranat Commission in 1974 about her country’s lack of preparedness for the coordinated attack from Egypt on Syria on Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the Jewish calendar) the year prior. As she relives the pressure cooker of those nineteen days, we follow “the Iron Lady of Israeli politics” through cabinet meetings, cancer screenings, war rooms, phone calls with Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), and countless cigarettes as she struggles with her failing health and protecting the citizens of her country.
While Mirren’s casting may rub some the wrong way due to her not being Jewish, she turns in a tremendous performance. Handpicked by Meir’s grandson Gideon, Mirren does look close enough to Meir to be believable, and her vocal and physical work is so strong that the transition between actual newsreel footage of the time and footage shot in that style for this film is near-seamless. Mirren is no stranger to playing women leaders, and Meir’s “no-bullshit grandma” persona fits her like a glove. She has the grim imperiousness down pat, of course, but the glimpses we get of a woman tormented by loss really stick out, humanizing Meir in a way that feels specific not only to this woman but to this film.
Mirren’s performance is so good that it doesn’t need a lot of cinematic bells and whistles surrounding it to get at the heart of this woman’s story, but that doesn’t stop Nattiv from throwing everything he can at the film. A lot of it is very effective at first. The film has an engrossing sound mix that slowly ratchets up certain elements of the scene – a stenographer’s typing, static on a radio, birds in the distance – to unbearable levels, increasing the tension of scenes to mimic the immense pressure Meir is under. However, these tricks are trotted out so often and with such great force behind them that what was once an exciting stylistic flourish becomes exhausting well before the film is over. Nattiv does an excellent job of putting the audience into Meir’s shoes, and he orchestrates some incredibly affecting scenes, most notably when Meir is in a bunker, listening to the blood-curdling cries of young boys as they give their lives for their country over the radios. The film uses actual audio from the Israeli army at the time, and the intensity of the sound mix, the tight close-up of Mirren’s weathered face, and the overbearing score by Dascha Dauenhauer combine to create a crushing scene. You feel the weight of everything coming down on Meir, the unbearable damage it must be doing to her psyche. But the film never settles for a 10 when it could go to 11, leaving the audience drained before it reaches its last act.
What Nattiv does is, in its remarkably unsubtle way, an incredible display of using cinematic technique to put the audience into the shoes of its main character. It’s also an ingenious way of making a film about a war without ever showing the carnage – the closest we get to the front lines is a satellite image that abstracts everything into dots and lines, soundtracked by what Meir and her war cabinet hear over the radio. It’s an effective way to make the audience feel the horror of the massive war casualties without showing the violence, all the more effective for the shell-shocked expression on Mirren’s face. But this moment very nearly gets lost in the middle of the film’s sound and fury. The film’s most memorable scene may very well be a meeting between Meir and Kissinger in which the film’s soundtrack finally quiets down, and Nattiv lets his actors do their work. Nicholas Martin’s script finally allows some comic relief, and Mirren and Schreiber make for fascinating scene partners, each with a prickly energy that makes the scene crackle with electricity. If Nattiv had shown this level of restraint and trust in the material more often throughout his film’s relatively short runtime, “Golda” could have been as successful as a film about this subject can be. The film’s focus on the political side of war makes it unique; the script is full of interesting notions about the relationship between political and military might, and Mirren is a force as the lead. But as it is, “Golda” is more likely to leave audiences talking about the filmmaking choices than the choices Meir had to make. And for a film about one of history’s most important leaders (for better or worse) in one of history’s most complicated times, one who has rarely been dramatized in a project of this scale, that really shouldn’t be the takeaway.