Directed by Guy Nattiv (“Skin”) and written by Nicholas Martin (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), this is not on biopic on Israel’s first and only female head of government, instead “Golda” examines the former Prime Minister’s leadership during the 18-day Yom Kippur War which almost escalated beyond the battle for the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula as both the United States and Russia supplied their allies. The character-driven film incorporates actual footage to tell the story that is highlighted by scenes of Helen Mirren’s Meir and Liev Schreiber’s Kissinger negotiating to de-escalate the conflict.
If you were to Google “Golda Meir”, there’s a good chance that an image of the Israeli politician holding a cigarette would pop up. She reportedly smoked up to five packs a day. There are only a few scenes in “Golda” where Mirren isn’t holding a cigarette. It’s a bit distracting but drives home the point that the 75-year-old head of state was a tough old bird who refused to give up nicotine even though she was receiving radiotherapy to battle lymphoma which eventually took her life.
Meir was born in Kyiv when it was still under the Russian Republic. Her family emigrated to the United States, and she was a schoolteacher in Wisconsin before becoming Israel’s first and only female head of state. Her life would make a fascinating biopic, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see what makes her tick. Apart from brief moments in Nattiv’s film where Meir discusses the horrors of her childhood in Ukraine, there’s no backstory to give the audience insight into the fabled leader nicknamed the “Iron Lady” for her willingness to wage war in defense of Israel.
Since “Golda” is focused on a small chapter of Meir’s life, granted, one of the most important ones, the film opens with footage of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (known as The Six-Day War). Quickly the timeline moves forward as Meir meets with Nixon at The White House in 1969 as Israel’s new Premier, to the film’s present day, 1973, just before a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur.
Mirren’s first glance as Meir begins with a closeup of the actress under heavy makeup and prosthetics. The thick eyebrows, wrinkled face, and grey hair hide any signs of the glamorous actress we’ve come to know. Dascha Dauenhauer’s ominous score sets the tone as Meir walks past protesters into a hearing set up to investigate how Israel’s Defense Forces misread all the signs that war was imminent. The committee’s findings led to Meir’s resignation in 1974.
The film jumps back to the start of the Yom Kippur War as Meir is greeted at the Tel Aviv airport by Mossad leader Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan) who warns her that according to his spy war is imminent. When Meir asks Zamir why he trusts the spy, he answers, “He knows everything, and he says war is coming.” Still, she remains skeptical and asks for concrete evidence.
Camille Cottin plays Meir’s personal assistant Lou Kaddar who is always at the Prime Minister’s side, especially during Meir’s 12-year battle with cancer. At the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem where Meir receives covert radiation treatments, her physician Dr. Rosenfeld warns, “The cigarettes and the black coffee are making my job harder” after sharing somewhat good news that the treatments are working. Still, the defiant Iron Lady lights up another cigarette while lying on the table waiting for the radiotherapy. In another scene later in the film, Meir coughs up blood as her health deteriorates, which is still not enough to convince her to kick the habit.
Dived by chapters broken down by the number of days in the 18-day war, the film shows how badly Meir’s cabinet misread all the signs including a major buildup of tanks, artillery equipment, and thousands of men. In the room with Meir, her advisors, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), Head of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira (Dvir Benedek), Commander of the Air Force Benny Peled (Ed Stoppard), and Dado Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi), the Military Chief of Staff.
Nattiv uses actual black-and-white war footage to represent the escalation. Short clips take the place of battle sequences that could have been shot for the film. That of course would have meant an increase in the budget and there are many indications that the filmmaker was working with limited resources. He also uses footage of the real Meir interspersed in the film which is a bit jarring since Mirren’s Prime Minister doesn’t look like the actual Meir. I would have preferred more “Forrest Gump” style effects with Mirren inserted into the actual historical footage.
There are several moments of audio from the battlefield that also represent the war as we watch Meir listen to the Israeli forces overrun by the Arab coalition. The scenes demonstrate the ugliness of war yet do little to create tension. In another scene, Dayan in a helicopter, flies over the battle zone witnessing explosions as bombs hit, illuminating the night sky. It’s enough to cause the Defense Minister to get nauseated, but not enough for the audience to feel emotion. It falls flat.
“Golda” hinges on Mirren’s performance. The transformation is impressive, and Mirren is very good. Yet, there are times that Meir resembles a grandmother preparing for bingo night instead of the powerful leader known as the “Iron Lady.” Yes, her health was deteriorating, and she was under tremendous stress, but those strong leadership qualities just come and go giving the audience just a taste of what made her a leader and the first female head of government in the Middle East.
When Liev Schreiber shows up as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger the film is elevated as Meir and Kissinger, old friends, sit down and discuss a resolution to the conflict. Schreiber has Kissinger’s voice and mannerisms down as he reminds Meir, “I think it’s important that you remember that first I am an American, second I am Secretary of State, and third I am a Jew.” Meir responds, “You forget in Israel we read from right to left.”
The performances in “Golda” are the strong points. Mirren, Schreiber, and the cast make up for the lack of tension. We get a sense of who Gold Meir was, but not how she became a world leader. Her passion for the people and her commitment to the establishment of an Israeli state was relentless and it comes through in Nattiv’s film. Meir made some miscalculations but for the most part, it was her cabinet that failed the Madame Prime Minister who hoped she would live long enough to see peace in the Middle East. She was a fighter all the way to the end.
Now showing in theaters