Netflix & Chill #106: Golda

When I saw the news that Helen Mirren had signed onto this movie to play Israeli Prime Minister

Golda Meir, I got excited. I mean, who wouldn't? Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren and despite the current conflict in the Middle East, objectively, you would have to assess Golda as one of the more interesting historical figures of the 20th Century.

This movie had 'Oscar bait' written all over it to me-- it debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of 2023, dropped in the US in August of 2023, and made its debut in the UK and Ireland (with some unfortunate timing) on October 6th, 2023. There was a casting controversy about Mirren getting the role of Meir because she's not Jewish- though her casting was apparently given the blessing of Meir's grandson, Gideon- but other than that, I was sort of expecting a lot more buzz around this movie. 

Then, I actually saw it.

Look, Mirren is excellent. There is no denying that she absolutely owns the role and I'm going to go out on a limb here- sort of because I don't think this is an especially strong take, but if anyone else is in this role, I think this movie becomes even more invisible than it wound up being. The problem, I think, is that international audiences who may not be aware of the history aren't really given a full understanding of just how traumatic the 1973 War was for Israel. Sure, the movie does one of the 'opening montage' things which sets the stage and gives everyone the basic facts of the chronology, but if Vietnam was America's trauma of the 20th Century, this was Israel's. This war shattered the political alignment that had persisted since Israel's founding in 1948. This war leads the rise of the right wing that has become powerful in Israeli politics today. This war did lead to the Camp David Accords in 1978,

In every measure you can think of, the 1973 War was a big deal. I just wish this movie did a better job of capturing just how big of a deal it actually was.

We find out early on that Mossad thinks that war is coming-- they've got a source who is convinced that the Egyptians are going to cross the canal in force. Unfortunately, the Israeli military isn't convinced. There are some that push for a full mobilization, but given the holy day (Yom Kippur) and the impact on Israel's economy there is a debate about it. Eventually, Golda compromises by ordering a partial mobilization and then we find out something else: very quietly, secretly, she's being treated for cancer.

That's the weird subtext about this movie: she goes to a basement, walks through an empty morgue to get her cancer treatments, but as the war begins and she goes back for treatments a few more times, we see the morgue begin to fill up with more and more bodies. (Eventually, the war ends and the film then ends with Golda in a hospital bed dying as she watched the first treaty between Egypt and Israel be formally ratified.) I guess, the implication is that all the dead bodies helped kill her? She was haunted by the failures of her government that lead to the deaths of some many? I'm not really against that idea, but it's an idea presented without context and just go read her Wikipedia page. It's a visual compelling idea, but it would mean more had we got more of a sense of who Golda actually was, which they don't give us at all.

This movie does absolutely nail the tension of the moment, however. There's a lot of chain smoking cigarettes in command bunkers, but it works. It's easy to forget, in the age of modern communications technology just how slowly information used to flow and just how small a country Israel actually is. When Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) goes to check out the Northern Front and bursts back into the cabinet room declaring all is lost and the Syrians have broken through and it's time to get the nuclear weapons ready, it's a shocking moment. Golda does calm him down, but she loses confidence in him.

As the war continues on, America starts to intervene-- which introduces the other pleasant surprise of this movie: Liev Schreiber as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The oil crisis at the time is putting America in a tough spot, but Golda eventually wrangles some more planes out of Kissinger as the Israeli Air Force is running short of planes. 

I think the other great thing about this movie is that it probably gets the realism of how a war works for leaders more or less correct. There's a lot of Golda making decisions in cabinet rooms or listening to radio traffic or getting briefed in bunkers, so we don't see how the war turns, we just hear it-- eventually, the Israelis cross the canal at an undefended point called 'Chinese Farm' and end up trapping the entire Egyptian Third Army. There is a moment where things waver and Golda is put on the spot and has to convince the Americans that if Egypt doesn't sue for peace, she'll destroy the Army and take Cairo and she manages to pull that off and eventually Egypt has no choice but to come to the table, which eventually leads to the Camp David accords.

In the aftermath of the war, the Mossad Chief, Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan) informs her that military intelligence had a listening system that could have monitored Egyptian movements on the other side of the canal but didn't have it turned on. Golda is appalled, but chooses to bear the blame rather than reveal the existence of the listening system. A year later, she testifies before the Agranat Commission investigating the intelligence failures of the war and off the record, says that despite her initial uncertainty, she genuinely felt that war was certain and her failure to trust her instincts continues to haunt her.

Overall: I'm torn about this movie. It was good. I think if you know something about the Yom Kippur War, you're going to get a lot more out of this movie than if you don't, but it's not a necessity either. Mirren is excellent, because she's Helen Mirren and she's awesome. Liev Schreiber is excellent, because, well, he's Liev Schreiber and he's awesome. But while this film probably capture the moments of tension and decision making that reflect a great moment of national peril for Israel really, really well, I don't think it captures a sense of who Golda Meir actually was all that well. She's more than this moment in history, though I think history will point to this moment as being a defining one for her. The movie is called Golda, you'd expect reach the end of it with a little more knowledge about who she was and where she came from, but you really don't. 

(Interestingly, one of the last projects Ingrid Bergman did was a made-for-television biopic of Meir called A Woman Called Golda and honestly, this movie makes me want to go track that down.)

My Grade: ** 1/2 out of ****.


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