It’s a fitting moment for a movie about Golda Meir and the Yom Kippur War to arrive in theaters. The High Holidays are a fortnight away, Benjamin Netanyahu and the protests against his conservative government’s attempts to change Israel’s judiciary have made the country front page news for months, and October marks the 50th anniversary of the events that nearly brought an end to Israel.
Though Meir the person provides rich source material, the movie, directed by Guy Nattiv and written by Nicholas Martin, isn’t really a biopic. The movie is a glimpse of what it was like to be Israel’s first and only female Prime Minister, one who presided over a war for the young nation. Golda is framed around Meir’s testimony before the Agranat Commission in 1974 that puts her decisions – as well as those of others, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) – over those 19 days of bloody fighting, under a spotlight.
Told via flashbacks to those weeks, we see that in between strategizing with her military advisors and inner circle, including chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi), the Prime Minister endures treatments for lymphoma that only those closest to her know about (Camille Cottin does lovely, non-showy work as her protective, dedicated aide Lou Kaddar). She suffers panic attacks over the mounting casualties, and bluffs and negotiates her way through the treacherous days via secret meetings in her kitchen with Henry Kissinger (a sly and funny Liev Schreiber) and her war room.
The men in the war room, the movie suggests, are not all as steely or loyal as she, withholding vital information about the impending attack and when to mobilize. Instead of revealing costly failures, she takes the hit. Meir resigns the following year and yet Israel’s victory under her guidance ultimately led to a measure of peace with the Camp David Accords in 1978.
Since the announcement of Mirren being cast, Golda has faced a particular scrutiny, one that’s been renewed in recent weeks along with the discussion of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein. I leave it to the viewer to decide whether Mirren should have been cast to play the Jewish Prime Minister. Would a Jewish actor have brought extra depth and resonance to the part? I think so.
But for me, the perennially glamorous and British Mirren, enhanced by prosthetics, a wiry gray wig and unfashionable clothes, does what she’s supposed to as a performer. She disappears into the part, but more importantly, is completely believable as the chain-smoking former soldier and grandmother turned incredibly tough, guilt-ridden, skilled battlefield tactician.
As someone who had very little understanding of what unfolded a half-century ago or knew much about Golda Meir, Martin and Nattiv made a complicated story accessible and engrossing. Whether it serves as an introductory history lesson about that time period and the extraordinary, controversial Golda Meir or offers the opportunity to watch Mirren’s compelling impersonation, Golda is an absorbing account of a defining time for Israel.