Helen Mirren’s ‘Golda,’ Without Apologies, Shines Light on Leader Often Held Responsible for Israel’s Darkest Hour

On her watch, the Jewish state flirts with the catastrophe of a second Masada — and it was a close call.

Bleecker Street via AP
Helen Mirren in a scene from the film 'Golda.' Bleecker Street via AP

“Golda,” from Guy Nattiv and Bleecker Street, is a tightly wound look at what was arguably Israel’s darkest hour, which fell during Judaism’s most solemn day — Yom Kippur, 1973. That is when, on the holiday of prayer and fasting, a host of Arab armies launched an attack that caught the Jewish state by surprise. 

The question since has been who needs atoning for the failure in prescience that left nearly 3,000 Israelis dead and shook the confidence of a nation that just six years before had been awash in delirium, having recovered its Biblical cradle with the lightning victory in the Six Day War.  

Much of that blame has found its way to Golda Meir, the Kyiv-born trade union apparatchik who rose to become prime minister after Levi Eshkol died in office. It is a cruel twist of history for Meir, who writes in her memoir of her earliest memory as being hunkered down during a pogrom. The fear and humiliation marked her, and steeled her resolve.   

Now comes “Golda,” starring Dame Helen Mirren, transformed by  prosthetics and swirled by cigarette smoke, seeking to rescue Israel’s only woman head-of-state from history’s gimlet eye. Her Meir, plodding of foot and infirm in body, is a survivor on whose watch the state to which she devoted her life suffered a near death experience.   

Mr. Nattiv, born the same year as the war was fought, is committed to the cause of Meir’s memory. He tells the Associated Press that “her name was drenched with bad public opinion” and that she found herself in the “drain of history,” an outcome he calls “misogynist.” The movie calls her “a hero outside Israel and controversial in her own land.”   

Whether or not the film works as revisionist — the staunch Laborite Meir would likely recoil at the word — history, it does bring the prime minister into fabulous focus. In Ms. Mirren’s jowls, ever present cigarettes, and her sensible shoes we get something of the fierce, if slightly befuddled, grandmother who was forced from a caretaker prime minister into a lightning rod.

Like “Oppenheimer” — the physicist and the prime minister were near exact contemporaries — “Golda” has its protagonist tell her own story, in the form of committee testimony. Her inquirers were the grandees of the Agranat Commission, who, while stopping short of condemning her, upbraided a complacent and unready military brass for whom defeat had become unimaginable.   

Although they stopped short of pointing the finger at Meir for the war’s prelude, the body’s finding of error was comprehensive enough to bring down her government nine days after the finding  was released. It was the beginning of the end for Labor’s rule of Israel. The peace with Egypt that Meir hoped would follow the war was signed by a longtime political antagonist, Menachem Begin. 

“Golda” largely transpires in back rooms, where Meir and her camarilla, slow at first to recognize Arab intentions, are caught on the back foot. It homes in on Meir’s reliance on the hero of the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, played by Rami Heuberger, who thought Israel’s enemies were bluffing, only to slip into a breakdown when he saw the situation in the Galilee for himself. He mutters about bearing witness to a second Masada

Then there is Ariel Sharon, played with due flamboyance by Ohad Kollner, already fighting in his fourth war, pushing daring plans to cross the Suez Canal, widely seen as the gamble that won the war. Meir grasps that he could be prime minister one day, but warns him that “all political careers end in failure.” Mirren does not neglect Meir’s  fire, as when she swears to make out of the Egyptian Third Army “an army of widows and orphans.”

Jewish tradition praises the woman of valor, and Golda Meir showed herself to be a woman of breathtaking, if laconic, courage. When war breaks out, she tells her war cabinet, among them the heroes of  ’48 and ’67, that they were free to “get under the table.” She, though, would not. 

That promise is made to the American secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, played with suave urbanity by Liev Schreiber. The colloquies between them are the best parts of the movie. Both born outside the countries they would come to represent on the world stage, their conversations mingle grudging affection and barely concealed suspicion. Kissinger is all about Soviet containment, while Meir has to worry not only about the Yom Kippur War, but the ones to come.

With the tide turning and Israel hankering to push its advantage, Kissinger flies to Tel Aviv for a late-night conclave with Meir. On his agenda is a cease fire, which he hopes will prevent the Soviets from entering the war on the side of their Egyptian client. Over borscht the statesman reminds her that he is an “American first, secretary of state second, and a Jew third.” 

In a famous retort, Meir reminds him that “in Israel, we read right to left.” In the event, Kissinger and Nixon were behind Operation Nickel Grass, the American airlift that supplied Israel with desperately needed military materiel despite the administration’s commitment to neutrality and the distraction of Watergate. Meir remarks that Kissinger would prefer Israeli victory, but also for it to pick up a “bloody nose” along the way. 

Speaking of noses, some have conflated the controversy over the actor Bradley Cooper’s artificial schnozz with the debate over Ms. Mirren, a non-Jewish actress, playing Meir. One actress, Maureen Lippman, says “I’m sure she will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”

 It is a good thing Mr. Nattiv and Ms. Mirren collaborated, though. The film, despite some sepia tones and predictable notes endemic to the biopic genre, is mercifully unbothered about telling Israel’s story and enlisting its viewers to cheer for her to snatch victory — bloodied, for sure —  from the jaws of defeat. It will be appreciated for years to come.

The New York Sun

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