|Worth seeing:||for an insight into war-room planning, through Helen Mirren's seamless turn as the controversial chain-smoking and handbag wielding political giant of her time|
|Featuring:||Helen Mirren, Camille Cottin, Dvir Benedek, Henry Goodman, Liev Schreiber, Lior Ashkenazi, Rami Heuberger, Rotem Keinan|
|Released:||6th October 2023|
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In October 1973, Israel was unexpectedly attacked, simultaneously, by Egypt in the south and Syria in the north on Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
It took nearly three weeks for Israel – under its first female prime minister Golda Meir (Dame Helen Mirren) – to force out the invaders and restore peace to the region.
Victory in the war came at a terrible price, with the lack of warning leading to heavy early losses, and it came with little help from its allies, with the US concerned that too much public support for Israel could open up a new rift with the Soviet Union, which firmly backed Israel’s Arab enemies.
The war was followed by a period of introspection, as Meir gave evidence to a commission of inquiry, looking to establish whether she bore any responsibility for failings in Israel’s handling of the conflict.
Within just a few years, Israel finally had a peace treaty with one of its aggressors – fifty years on, it still has no diplomatic relations with the other.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This film is perhaps wrongly named – Golda, of course, was Israel’s first – and so far only – female prime minister and it was indeed her who was in charge during the Yom Kippur War.
But this is not a film about her – we don’t learn about her past, how her youth coloured her philosophy, how she rose to the top of politics in her adopted country. All we really see of her is a chain-smoking, cancer patient who has three weeks to save her country, while politicians – both foreign and domestic – argue about how to restore peace.
As war films go, we don’t see any fighting on the battlefield – only arguing in smoke-filled rooms, as military and political leaders differ in their approach to the invasion. There are, perhaps, too many characters for non-Israeli viewers to keep up with, which does at least focus attention on the woman at its centre.
It’s hard to see who the audience for this film is. While it’s likely to appeal more to supporters of Israel than its opponents, inside Israel itself, many hold Golda Meir responsible for the death-toll among soldiers, who might have lived had she been more prepared for the invasion. Outside Israel, she’s seen within the Jewish diaspora as the defender of Israel against its Arab invaders, but in communities sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, she’s remembered for stating – in an interview early in her premiership – that there had never been a Palestinian people in a Palestinian state – in their view denying the identity of the Arabs, who then – and still now – sought a state of their own, with the same status as – or indeed instead of – Israel.
Concentrating only on her decisions during this nineteen day period, the film doesn’t address the controversy during the wider course of her tenure at the top of Israeli politics, so there’s little opportunity for the disparate potential audiences to find much to praise or scream at.
It’s little more than an historical snapshot – of a war, rather than of a person – it’s a film about a leader trying to win a war – it could equally have been a film about Churchill during the Second World War or Volodymyr Zelensky now – which doesn’t make it less interesting or powerful, but it’s not, perhaps, the film you might expect from the title.
There’s been much criticism of what is not in the film – but in truth, you can review only the film that’s been made – you can’t review what’s not there. The film-makers have made their creative decisions and we can comment only on what they have included.
So what’s in there? Some fine performances – chiefly Mirren herself and Liev Schreiber as the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – interesting directorial flourishes that take the film out of the meeting room from time to time – some effective use of archive footage – overhead shots of cigarette boxes and lighters being pushed around maps – and lots of talking. We also see a brief glimpse of Golda on her death-bed – and pay a few visits to an inquiry into her handling of the war, that acts as a framing device for the narrative, although that doesn’t really go into enough depth to make it worth its screen time.
There are a couple of times where Golda is allowed to show that she has a heart – and even a sense of humour – but, given the circumstances in which we meet her, she’s largely presenting as Israel’s Iron Lady, as much at odds with many of her comrades as she is with her Arab neighbours.
We learn a bit about the Yom Kippur war from her perspective – as she comments, she’s a politician, not a soldier – we don’t learn much about the wider Middle East conflict or about Golda herself. It is what it is and it can’t really be judged for what it isn’t.
At its best, fine actors deliver sharply written lines that underscore the complexities of military strategy, underscored by political necessity – at its worst, it’s a narrowly focussed, dialogue-heavy drama that feels a little empty and oddly inconsequential for a film named after such a significant woman in modern history. It’s war – as seen by a politician, not a soldier – but it’s not the biopic it’s title suggests.