“Golda” Review: Israeli Prime Minister Helen Mirren

Berlin: Mirren is unsurprisingly fantastic, but Guy Nattiv’s film is frustratingly superficial.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren), defending her conduct during the Yom Kippur War before a jury of graying men, takes the half-smoked cigarette already hanging from her lips and instinctively, but not absentmindedly, lights another. This unique character punch comes early in Guy Nattiv’s ho-hum bio and speaks volumes for the story and theme, telling you everything you need to know about Meir the person and “Golda” the film.

That Golda is a smoker should come as no shock; almost everyone lives in this period, exact window to 1973. What sets the prime minister apart is his stubbornness – his determination and perseverance in his intentions. This cancer icon lights up every time she undergoes radiation treatment and smokes less for pleasure than in defiance of her own not-too-distant goal. The fact that Mirren grabs this ticket should come as even less of a surprise, since what else is Marlboro, if not the actor’s best friend, reliable partner, a gift for idle hands, a way to punctuate a line, a scene, a reading?

Which brings us back to this pregnant bump and the movie it foreshadows. In theory a docudrama reliving the 1973 Yom Kippur War from the angle of power, “Golda” is in practice a compendium of acting effects, a spotlight on a venerable performer that offers them a stage to shine. Tossed between conflicting tonal and narrative approaches, Nattiv’s film finds its clearest identity as awards show bait, the result of a clumsy set-up: what if the entire airplane was made out of the black box? What if they made the entire movie out of the Oscar reel?

The result would look something like this. After a framing device finds Meir testifying before the Agranat Commission—a 1974 panel investigating the intelligence failures that left the young state unprepared for the previous year’s war—we flash back to the morning of October 6, 1973, when the impending news of the attack reached the country. Prime Minister’s table. On one side of Meir sits IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi), and on the other sits Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger). Both offer conflicting advice, and if screenwriter Nicholas Martin’s dialogue is close to the historical record, the visuals tell a very different story.

The fact that actors Ashkenazi and Heuberger (and many others in the supporting cast) are Israeli and Mirren is decidedly not was hardly lost on angry commentators, although the dynamic acting on screen really resolves that tension. Because the film’s centrifugal force is ultimately Mirren, not Meir. You could certainly make a version of this story with (what some say) a more ethnically appropriate lead, but that movie wouldn’t be ‘Golda’. Indeed, the attraction here is that of an actor transforming, seeking a familiar face under a mask of makeup, finding solace in his unchanging eyes.

In other words, we want to see movie stars dressed up, and on that front, “Golda” delivers. And if adhering to that mandate lends this biopic a muddled quality—cycling dissonant notes to give the star a variety of voices—there’s undeniable scene-by-scene merit to that approach.

As the war begins, the prime minister and his top advisers go into bunker mode and watch Israeli forces suffer catastrophic losses as a sense of existential panic grows. There is a version of this film that fully follows the paradox of power – the sad truth that the Rooms where it takes place are usually grim and banal, and oh so far from the fields where victory can be plucked from the jaws of defeat . And hey, this movie actually exists within “Golda,” most notably in a standout sequence in which the top brass listen to a failed offensive over the airwaves while being utterly powerless to intervene.

Of course, this real-time version of war must coexist with a number of others, including those that require a bit of winking irony (“They’re making me Prime Minister,” Meir tells a cocky general walking past Sharon). and those that capture another key appeal of the genre – to see how well-cast icons behave once the cameras are off. Often mixing archival footage with stage recreations, Nattiv takes obvious pleasure in performing on this front.

This mixing style hits the camp dangerously when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visits Meir. The scene begins with a flurry of archival reports, following the real-life figure from a strip of tarmac in Tel Aviv to the gates outside Meir’s residence. When we cut inside—where those live cameras couldn’t take him—Liev Schreiber and the borsch come out walking. While earlier war cabinet scenes are as austere as an all-day fast, the film succumbs to the allure of pretense as two of its most iconic characters find themselves behind closed doors.

“Madam Prime Minister,” says Schreiber in an oft-imitated monotone. “First I am a foreign minister, then an American, and only then a Jew.” Meir turns on the bubble charm while force-feeding her borscht and replies, “You forget that in Israel we read from right to left.” It’s not a bad line as far as shtick goes, but it’s certainly noticeable when taking on sequences as dry and weighty as the cat, and all the more so as the project seeks to eliminate any of the more delicate moral and political issues with a c’mon – by insisting on vision. – Now, just approach the facts.

Ultimately, “Golda” has three firm beliefs: Meir is a leader to be admired, Mirren is an actress to be adored, and that every interaction must be recast to fit that limited scope. It makes for a superficial biographical and blinkered story, but gives the venerable performer a new focus to chew on and blow some smoke. A good role in a movie is always less than the sum of its parts.

Rating: C-

“Golda” premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release it at a later date.

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