You can tell a biopic is ahead of the curve when it’s not interested in a cradle-to-the-grave story of its subject. Life is messy and never fits the structure of a three-act movie. So it’s with savvy that director Guy Nattiv uses “Golda” to look at Israeli prime minister Golda Meir not through her entire life, but through the crucible of the Yom Kippur War. What’s more, rather than being a simple tale of triumph over adversity, “Golda” is a story about the costs of leadership and the human mistakes our leaders make along the way.
Nattiv quickly takes us up to the days preceding the 1973 Yom Kippur War and notes to the audience that Israel’s government was feeling overconfident after its success in the Six Day War in 1967.
This sets the stage for October 1973, where Meir (Helen Mirren) knows that war is at her doorstep (again), but is trying to maneuver through the egos, beliefs, and politics of her advisers as well as her country’s place on the world stage. And when the attack does come on Yom Kippur from a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, Meir must use all her political skill to defend Israel while also appealing to American interests represented by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber).
Rather than telling a rah-rah tale of heroism, Nattiv soaks his story in death. He makes the most of a limited budget by making a war film that doesn’t require expensive battle scenes. Instead, in a sharp and effective move, he uses a mixture of real war footage and some scenes of characters learning of the battle from far away. In one scene defense minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) witnesses his troops being destroyed by opposing forces, the explosions of tanks reflected in his horrified stare. A later scene has Meir listening to a radio broadcast of Israeli troop losses in battle, a necessity of war but no less heartrending for that, especially witnessed through Mirren’s excellent performance.
Instead of a world of jingoism and patriotism, Nattiv paints a world of cold realpolitik where everyone is dying. Israeli troops are dying. Arab forces are dying. Even Meir is dying as the film repeatedly cuts to her cancer treatments. This is a world where death is on the doorstep, and while movies about American figures like to employ soaring rhetoric and big emotions, the world of “Golda” is cramped rooms filled with cigarette smoke.
Of course, with any movie dealing with historical reality, there will always be questions of accuracy. However, I would encourage viewers to look more for emotional truth and thematic consistency than for a history lesson. Did Golda Meir really smoke cigarettes next to her oxygen tank? I doubt it! But it’s a potent visual metaphor for a person who lives her life with the slimmest of outlets (smoking isn’t glamorous for Meir in “Golda”; it’s portrayed as the one release she permits herself) and whose actions may have catastrophic consequences. When we start taking out our history books against a narrative feature, we’re more likely to miss what’s really happening.
The story that Nattiv aims to tell isn’t intended to be a primer on Golda Meir. We’re looking at a handful of days in a handful of rooms, and what Nattiv is looking to convey isn’t the breadth of her entire life (an impossible task to do well in a 100-minute movie). Instead, he shows Meir as a complicated figure, and how the events of the Yom Kippur War demonstrate that complexity. Some may leave the film wondering about her rise to power or the details of her childhood, but Nattiv is under no obligation to plumb every corner of Meir’s existence to make his movie. There is no shortage of Meir biographies, but there are relatively few movies about Golda Meir and her legacy.
Those who come to the movie looking for basic information about Meir and Israeli history may feel a little lost. They may even be left wondering at times why we’re seeing this political drama unfold with Meir at its center as opposed to any number of figures involved in the Yom Kippur War. But Nattiv and Mirren make the compelling case of how good leaders bear not only the weight of monumental decisions, but also the fallout.
What I appreciated most about “Golda” is that it’s not necessarily a movie about resiliency or beating the odds. Instead, it’s a movie about the necessity of absorbing trauma for the sake of peace down the road. Meir feels the loss of life acutely, and to Nattiv’s credit, he doesn’t ignore the Arab lives lost either (the film is dedicated to all who lost their lives in the Yom Kippur War, not just Israeli soldiers). What “Golda” argues is that feeling the trauma of war is essential because without it, you have no incentive to move toward peace. You should steel yourself for the fight, but you must never relish it.
“Golda” succeeds not because it’s a celebration, but because it’s an acknowledgment of sacrifice. This is not a movie about dominating your enemy, but rather the consequences of thinking that one victory will make you victorious forever. This is about cold pragmatism leading to the warmth of peace. Whatever the details of Meir’s life or her actions during the Yom Kippur War may be, the truth of “Golda” comes across in seeing leadership not in popularity, but in empathy.
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