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Review | ‘Golda’: This portrait of a prime minister only scratches the surface


(2 stars)

Set during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel faced an existential crisis while under attack by Arab forces led by Egypt and Syria, the docudrama “Golda” has many of the same things going for it as “Darkest Hour.” That was the 2017 docudrama that won a best-actor Oscar for Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, as well as one for the makeup and prosthetics team that transformed the actor into the portly British prime minister on the eve of the Battle of Dunkirk. But the least of the parallels is the dramatic physical transformation actress Helen Mirren also underwent to portray Golda Meir, including a fake nose, other facial prosthetics and a fat suit, down to the Israeli prime minister’s thick ankles.

Mirren and Oldman are two of Britain’s finest actors, and both films capture their subjects at pivotal moments in history, when swaying the public was as important as behind-the-scenes decision-making — decision-making that forms the focus of each film, rather than battle scenes. What’s more, both feature personal interludes with the protagonists’ intimates: In “Darkest Hour,” it’s Churchill’s wife, Clementine (played by Kristin Scott Thomas); in “Golda,” it’s Meir’s personal assistant, Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottin).

So why is “Golda” so much duller?

It’s not entirely the performance. Mirren has Meir’s Wisconsin-bred accent down, though she does at times seem to be suffocating under all the trappings that help define the leader’s physical character, including an ever-present cigarette. Meir was said to smoke up to 70 cigarettes a day, and Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv seems to have taken that figure literally, even showing Meir, who died of cancer in 1978 at 80, puffing away while being examined by her doctor. There’s so much smoking in the film — including by supporting characters — that most scenes have the muted grayish-yellow patina of nicotine-stained walls. Nattiv seems peculiarly fascinated by shots of ashtrays.

The screenplay by Nicholas Martin is also overly on the nose: “I’m a politician,” Meir says, “not a soldier,” brushing off attempts by her competing advisers — Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), Mossad head Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan), military chief of staff Dado Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi) and intelligence director Eli Zeira (Dvir Benedek) — to get her to commit to a plan of action. At another point, after the tide of battle has turned against Israel, we watch as Meir wrings her hands in anguish so vigorously that she draws blood, a clumsy metaphor for complicity in Israeli deaths. (The main action of the film plays as flashbacks within a court of inquiry that investigated Meir’s government’s lack of preparedness in the war.)

The film does have its moments, mostly involving the relationship between Meir and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, nicely played by Liev Schreiber, whose character engages in delicate negotiations with her over a bowl of borscht, speaking in a seductive, diplomatic rumble. It was only the U.S. agreement to supply arms, deep in the barely-three-week-long conflict, that helped Israel turn the fighting around. But the U.S. emissary was understandably reluctant to do more, given the fact that a nuclear showdown with the Soviets was at stake if the Americans went too far. The scenes between these two figures are among the film’s best.

But it is the woman at the center of the story whose personality and contradictions are given short shrift, in any deep sense. In a debate with Elazar about whether to commit Israeli soldiers to what is effectively a suicide mission, Meir asks, rhetorically, “Would you have me create an army of widows and orphans?” He asks in return, “Are you prepared to do that?” — to which she replies, enigmatically, “The world must believe that I am.”

That line is a hint, but only a hint, at the brinkmanship, posturing and moral compromise that leaders must engage in. (After all, one side or the other — and perhaps both — will have been made an army of widows and orphans in the end.) But in “Golda,” there’s no real sense of that devil’s bargain, which remains as pertinent — and, more important, as personal — today as it was 50 years ago.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material and pervasive smoking. In English and some Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. 100 minutes.

POST AUTHOR: Michael O’Sullivan

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