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Movie Review: Golda
As many of you know, I do film and television podcasts as well as written reviews for Screen Thoughts. Occasionally I will post one of my reviews here, when I think you should see a film or television show. If you can, don’t miss Golda. My review follows.
Recently ST hosted a preview of the film, Golda in New York City. Our team invited fifty friends and family to see the much-anticipated film about Golda Meir's historically controversial leadership during the Yom Kippur War, fought in 1973 between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. As I was walking out of the theater, I turned to my group (many of whom are also ex-smokers) and said, “I’ll meet you at dinner. I’m going to buy a pack of cigarettes.” My fellow film watchers all looked at me like I was a nutcase.
The reason I bring up the cigarettes before discussing this extraordinary experience in the theater is to give you a taste of what it’s like to watch this film. The director, Guy Nattiv, incorporates so many unexpected, fine-tuned touches that let you glimpse the feelings of the characters beyond what’s on the screen as it plays action through the action. This totally changes the way you watch a film about war, which makes it unlike any other that I can recall. I almost hesitate to label them this way, but I saw them as feminine touches that emphasized the experiences of a woman leader in the war room, and those around her. As this may be the first film that depicts war in this way—from the perspective of a head of state who was a woman in the war room during combat—those touches make the decisions (and human beings) behind warfare come alive. And from the moment she hits the screen Golda has a cigarette burning, or is lighting one, or putting one out. It works. I know who she is. I see her strength in her smoking, her fear, her vulnerability, her rage, and her ill health.
I’ll give you another example. Early in the film, we learn that one of the transcribing secretaries in the war room has a son serving in an army reserve unit. Later on, once his unit has been mobilized, Golda on occasion looks over her shoulder—even as she’s in the midst of major discussions—and makes eye contact with the terrified mother of one single soldier. And when we finally learn his fate, Golda is the one who personally brings the news. There are so many of these small yet amazing vignettes woven throughout the film. Together they bring the horror of those days of battle to life. The takeaway, in my mind? Women should be in charge of wars. I imagine we would have less of them, and when they did occur the decisions made would be based on lives at least as much as ego.
This film is all over the news. Should Helen Mirren have been given the role of this Israeli head of state? Should the role have gone to a Jewish woman? The same discussion is taking place around Maestro—written, directed, and starring Bradley Cooper, who wears a prosthetic nose in the film. This choice has many people in a rage, comparing it to the Nazi’s xenophobic caricatures of Jews’ physical appearance.
I personally have no opinion on this—a rare instance of not knowing what I think. But I will say that Helen Mirren is spectacular in the role. Strong. Afraid. Vulnerable—especially regarding her physical frailty in the midst of this situation in which she was forced to take control from inept and ego-driven commanders, or see Israel destroyed. It’s not an easy role. It would be easy to overplay, or underplay, but she does neither. I would say she is acting in the moment and responding to that moment, which is the holy grail for an actor. But she seems to handle it with ease. She should be a contender for award season, and I hope she is—not because she needs another bauble for her mantel, but because I think it would shine more light on Golda Meir herself, a fascinating hero/villain character critical to the history of Israel’s government.
As you head to the theater—in the company of droves of other moviegoers, I hope—consider this phenomenal woman’s broader legacy. She was Israel’s leader during the Munich Massacre. You remember—eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage during the Munich Olympics and ultimately slaughtered in an appalling event that played out on the world stage. She was not a politician who sought power or influence, like so many male leaders we see today. Meir was elected to the Knesset in 1949 and served as Labor Minister until 1956, when she was appointed Foreign Minister by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. She retired from the ministry in 1966 due to ill health. In 1969, Meir assumed the role of prime minister following the death of Levi Eshkol. She didn’t want the role, but she never shirked from its responsibilities—unlike the commanders around her.
It’s important to understand the men in that war room. Though this context is not in the film, during the Q&A with Nattiv and Mirren that followed the screening it was explained that those men were heroes in Israel based on their experience in the Six-Day War, which played out six years prior to the Yom Kippur War, the conflict presented in the film. But while they may have been heroes, they were far from experienced. The Six-Day War was over in a flash, with an Israeli victory. This quick victory perhaps gave them the hubris to believe that they could easily handle any conflict.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, for example, is depicted as being so shocked by how wrong he was that he reacts the way Howard Dean did when he lost Iowa—a bit… well, a bit crazy. So Meir sends him home to rest. In fact, all the leaders are so shaken that they seem to lose their mojo—and it’s apparent from the get-go that Golda has to step up and lead… or else. She does it, but not before throwing one of the great lines in the movie (there were many): “I’m a political, not a military, leader; I don’t know how to do this.” And yet, she then goes out and does it, balancing egos, bad ideas, and disregard for possible repercussions—and she gets the job done.
Back to Golda’s director, Guy Nattiv. He won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short for his film Skin, which you can watch on Hulu. I’m impressed by his transition from short film to full narrative storytelling. I’m not sure if this film is brilliant—but for his first foray, it’s extremely close. I think one issue is that he used techniques that might work when you’re doing a short—brief, jarring moments that last just a second—but they don’t work so well in an hour-and-a-half film. For example, in the opening sequence, he gives us a few seconds of an aerial shot from above a car as Golda climbs in. It interrupts the storytelling. It doesn’t add anything. On the other hand, I think that by learning to tell stories efficiently in a short amount of time, he was able to present an extremely complex situation within the scope of a feature film; others would have attempted a five-part series with hundred-minute episodes. It’s mind-boggling that he brought so much to us in such a short time. His next film? I can't wait.
I think Golda will be seen the way Woody Allen films used to be—primarily by urban, liberal intellectuals, who will go and then speak to one another about it. Unfortunately, you will not be seeing sell-out crowds for this film at theaters all over America, the way it should be seen. But that leads to a whole other conversation about learning from history.
After I got my cigarettes (just kidding), I joined my friends for dinner. We spent the evening vigorously discussing so many things about Golda, including the acting, writing, our historical ignorance, and, and, and. My friend Robin asked a question as we were leaving the restaurant that I already know will fester in us all: If Golda had been a man, would the war have had the same outcome?