In “Golda,” Helen Mirren, acting with deft skill and control beneath one of those startling transformative prosthetic makeup jobs, portrays Golda Meir during the three-week cataclysm of the Yom Kippur War, which shook Israel to its bones in the fall of 1973. As the actor stands (or, more often, stoops) before us, we can believe our eyes that this is the Iron Lady of Israel. For here is that frown, those beetle brows, that coarse wavy hair tied into a bun like challah bread, that pugnacious nose, that stare of implacability designed to bore a hole in its beholder. Here, as well, is the woman who lit a thousand cigarettes, chain-smoking her way through the war-room anxiety and through the secret medical treatments she was undergoing at the time for lymphoma.
Yet the voice that emerges from this formidable figure is not what we might expect. It’s light, fast, and American, and Mirren gets it exactly right. Meir, born in Ukraine in 1898, emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was eight and grew up in Milwaukee. When she was in her early 20s, she and her husband went to live on a kibbutz in Palestine. By the time she became the fourth prime minister of Israel, in 1969, Meir resembled an old European grandmother, yet her worldly sensibility was steeped in the litheness and power of America.
Mirren makes her terse, decisive, and ferociously alive, always a step ahead of the Israeli military officers in the room — a matriarch with the toughness of a buzzard. (David Ben-Gurion meant it as a compliment when he called Meir “the only man in my cabinet.”) There’s been controversy about the casting of Mirren, since she is neither Israeli nor Jewish. But why quibble when it comes down to a great actor giving a performance that’s this authentic? The way Mirren plays it, Meir’s humanity is always there — the distress she feels at losing even one soldier is the current of her being — yet so is her ruthless pragmatism. She’s fighting for the survival of her nation, and she’ll spill a great deal of blood. She’ll be called on the carpet for the orders she gives (a year later we see her answering questions before an investigative committee, and the Israeli people will vote her out of office). Those decisions tear at her gut. But that’s what the movie is about. In “Golda,” the fog of war becomes the gnarly upset stomach of war.
Meir was 75 when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria. Both countries were attempting to recapture lands — the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights — that had been taken by Israel during the Six-Day War. But this was not just a tactical turf war. Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt who spearheaded the aggression, knew that he probably couldn’t win the war, and his deeper intent was to shake up the whole paradigm of the Middle East — to rock the foundations of Israel and to undermine the very concept of Zionism as a historical destiny. Fifty years later, there’s a good case to be made that he succeeded. Israel, after a shaky and scary start, emerged victorious from the Yom Kippur War, and what commenced after that is what become known, in international diplomacy and an infinite number of Thomas L. Friedman columns, as “the peace process.”
The key word in that phrase was “process.” Everyone in his or her right mind wants peace, but the essence of the Middle East “peace process” is that it would be a kind of system, mapped out by forces (and nations) large and small, in which if you carefully built one step in front of another, all the parties involved could, theoretically, ascend to a peaceful happy ending.
That it never seemed to work out that way didn’t deter the peace-process believers. They had a goal, as well as a mythology, which said that Israel was a good and democratic nation surrounded by hostile neighbors. There is truth to that mythology, but it has never been the whole truth. It leaves out realities largely suppressed by Western media about the formation of Israel in 1948, a cataclysm dealt with incisively in last year’s Israeli documentary “Tantura.” It leaves out the fundamental contradiction, discussed by Peter Beinart just yesterday in The New York Times, between the concept of Israel as a Jewish State and the concept of Israel as a democracy. The “peace process” never worked — not really — because it was always, beneath the rhetoric, an elaborate stopgap masquerading as a mystic pathway to resolution. And the Yom Kippur War marked the first time that the Arab world, freshly armed by the Soviets in a way that it wasn’t during the 1967 war, asserted its place in a new balance of power.
The specter of that was read by Israel, quite rightly, as an existential threat. And part of what makes “Golda” a tense and absorbing backroom docudrama is that you feel that primal fear. Meir first hears about the drums of war from Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan), the director-general of the Mossad, who discusses the massing of Egyptian troops. But the signals are ambiguous, and it turns out later that the reason for that is that the Mossad’s multi-million-dollar listening system was “switched off.” This sounds, on the face of it, like some bizarre Jewish domestic joke (“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the lights on?”), but the upshot is that the Israelis are caught off guard.
Whatever the signals, Meir knows that she can’t launch a pre-emptive strike, because the United States, the Goliath that stands behind Israel but has its own evolving relationship with the Arab world, now based on the politics of oil, will not tolerate it. On the Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks face an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Meir dispatches Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), the Israeli defense minister, to survey the damage in that region, and what he views from a helicopter is a tableau of nighttime carnage so apocalyptic it makes him throw up. “Golda,” written by the British screenwriter Nicholas Martin and directed by Guy Nattiv, who is Israeli-American (the film is an American-British co-production), does a reasonably effective job of laying out the thorny battle complications of the Yom Kippur War. Yet this was a wide-ranging mess, and we have to take on faith the essential trajectory of the war: that the Egyptians and the Syrians got the upper hand, then didn’t know what to do with it.
The film presents Israel as a victim of its own hubris, going back to the 1967 victory that, ironically, laid the groundwork for so many of the problems that beset Israel today (the 2007 documentary “Six Days” examines this paradox with essential insight). At the same time, the film presents Egypt and Syria as victims of their own hubris, fatally hovering between tactical victories and the larger dream of smashing Israel. At key moments, Mirren’s Golda summons a mercilessness worthy of a gangster (the actor knows just how to understate a line like “Teach our enemies a lesson they’ll never forget”). But she’s always aware of the larger forces at work; in certain ways, the entire conflict is a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviets.
Lurking in the background is Henry Kissinger, the flinty voice of tough-love American loyalty, played by Liev Schreiber in a performance that nails Kissinger’s croaky geopolitical steeliness but could have used a touch of his Peter Sellers grin. When Kissinger finally comes to Israel to meet with Meir in her home and seal a cease-fire agreement, the two square off like old friends who are remaking their terms of endearment. “Golda” roots us in the combat detail of the Yom Kippur War, and that’s part of its dynamism as a movie. That very effectiveness, however, is tied to a limitation. The film is told from the Israeli point-of-view, which makes perfect sense given that it’s a moment-in-time biopic of Golda Meir. Yet it ends on a note of faith in the peace process that now looks borderline ahistorical. “Golda” is a good drama about Israel. But it will take a great drama about Israel to dig into the nation’s long-simmering moral ambiguities.