War is coming in Guy Nattiv’s Golda, onscreen and off. But despite the media’s best efforts to turn the casting of British, non-Jewish actor Helen Mirren as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir into an explosive example of cultural appropriation, both Nattiv’s direction and Mirren’s performance are low-key and careful enough to rise above the controversy. In retrospect, it does seem a little strange that no other candidate was deemed suitable, and the movie won’t do much extra business on account of Mirren’s star power, but those anticipating a tone-deaf disaster will be sorely disappointed.
Golda very much exists in the slipstream of two last-decade biopics, The Iron Lady and Darkest Hour, both humanizing studies of seemingly indomitable famous politicians. Nattiv, however, takes a much narrower view of his subject, using Meir’s testimony at an inquest into her government’s handling of the Yom Kippur war of 1973 as a framing device for an engrossing, if rather dry, docudrama procedural. It’s the kind of project Mirren does seem drawn to (Golda is very similar in spirit to 2015’s Eye in the Sky, a talky moral-maze movie about the ethics of modern warfare), while Nattiv’s understated direction (lots of earth tones, and nondescript office interiors) brings to mind Tomas Alfredson’s understated adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The shadow of Le Carré does loom large, which may be attributable to Nicholas Martin’s thoughtful script. In flashback, the drama begins with some very British espionage, with an undercover agent working in an East Finchley school (“The Postmistress”) sharing intelligence with another (“The Baker”) about the movement of dangerous radioactive materials. There is talk of imminent military action in the Middle East, uniting Egypt and Syria in a two-front attack on the State of Israel, both literally and metaphorically (“Trouble with the neighbours again”). But when it reaches Meir’s ears, her advisors dismiss rumours that an attack could happen with the next 24 hours, pointing to a major lack of evidence from their surveillance unit. They are soon proven wrong, and the driving force of this lean drama is Meir’s inner conflict: like Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, she is a vulnerable and divisive political figure being forced into war on the backfoot.
Mirren’s Meir smokes a lot—even between treatments for lymphoma, the disease that killed her in 1978 at the age of 80—and in these moments of quiet reflection, even in close-up, Mirren completely disappears under the prosthetics. Though she’s actually older than Meir was in 1973, Mirren has always struggled to be convincing in age-appropriate roles notably The Duke, in which she played Jim Broadbent’s dowdy charlady wife. Here, though, she’s a near-perfect fit for the character; Meir has been compared to Margaret Thatcher since her death, but Mirren hones in on a crucial difference between the two: where Thatcher was a self-confident, controlling personality who preferred the company of men (and trusted them to an extent that she over-estimated their loyalty), Meir is presented as a team player surrounded by men that she needs for support but whose failings exasperate her. Some of her more emotional moments may be rose-tinted, especially in scenes where she reckons with the human cost of the war, but it would hard to call this a whitewash.
Key figures from past and future Israel political history come and go, notably Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon and Henry Kissinger (in a cameo from Liev Schreiber), but Nattiv keeps things manageable for anyone just a passing acquaintance with the facts, which is likely to be most of the audiences in Europe and the USA. The battle scenes, likewise, are muted, mediated mostly by video monitors, phone lines and archive footage, a well-meaning strategy that unfortunately shows the limits of the film’s budget. But Golda does make some striking philosophical points that elevate it a little bit above the average show-and-tell TV movie. “All political careers end in failure,” says Meir, who knows the end is coming and, in an aside that reflects a more existential sense of embattlement than the one at hand, tells her PA that she will not be taken alive.
In that way, Golda opens up an interesting conversation about Meir’s legacy, even in the face of Israel’s apparent victory when the Yom Kippur War ended less than two weeks later with a death toll well into the thousands. “Knowing when you’ve lost is easy,” she reflects. “It’s knowing when you’ve won that’s hard.”
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