GOLDA (2023)

Golda is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.

Beyond vague impressions, I knew very little about Golda Meir going into my screening of Guy Nattiv's Golda (2023), which is certainly my own fault. That I had more or less the same vague impressions of her coming out of that screening, however, is surely the film's fault.

Biopics are notoriously hard to pull off, and in general I am a believer in the synecdochical approach Nattiv takes here: to focus on one specific moment in a historical figure's life, and through that narrow lens view the person entire. Golda is not—and never pretends to be—a biography or a history lesson: It's intended to be a tense character study, a seemingly intimate observation of the former Israeli prime minister over the 18 days of 1973's Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Yom Kippur War or the Ramadan War, depending who you ask).

Unfortunately, Golda doesn't work particularly well as a character study either. With a screenplay by Nicholas Martin (Florence Foster Jenkins) that never expands on or delves beneath Meir's public persona, we are left with little more than a showy but shallow one-woman show, a strange, prolonged impersonation—emotional, but not illuminating—in which Helen Mirren bids for still more acting awards from behind pancaked pounds of prosthetic makeup. I don't know if that was the sole intended purpose of making Golda, but neither can I say what other value the film might have.

We open on a newsreel prologue that simplifies the first 25 years of Israel's existence into a few key sound-bytes. (It's neither my interest here nor my expertise to address the political complexities of Israel, except to say that Nattiv's film isn't interested in them either: Nowhere are the perspectives or potentially legitimate grievances of Israel's Arab opponents even acknowledged—let alone represented—and nowhere is even a smidgen of criticism against Israeli policies allowed to creep in. A wry line of Meir's—"We've got trouble with the neighbors again"—is about the sum total of the political analysis.) Then we are in the events of October 1973—when Egypitan and Syrian forces staged a surprise attack on Israel—as told by Meir to a board of inquiry in 1974. 

Since I've already raised the question of the film's intent, I should say that this otherwise unnecessary framing sequence seems to exist to center the stakes of the film on the question of responsibility. Historically, Meir took the blame for Israel's lack of preparation and military blunders during the war, and she ended up resigning just a year later. But in Golda, Nattiv seems determined to exonerate her reputation, and place the blame on the over-confident and childlike men around her, particularly Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), who downplays rumors of the impending attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces, talks Meir out of mobilizing sufficient troops to fend it off, and then appears to have a full-blown nervous breakdown once the war starts going badly. (Other military leaders—including future prime minister Ariel Sharon, largely remembered as the hero of the war—do not fare much better.)

To be clear, I do not know the facts well enough to judge these depictions of either the figures or their decisions. But if Nattiv's intention is to elevate Meir's reputation, the filmwhich unfolds almost entirely as a war-room chamber piece, with tense but dry conversations around conference tables—does not seem to make its case. Golda comes across as a formidable personality—a tough-talking, chain-smoking broad—but not as a savvy leader or a canny military mind. Her chief contribution to the war effort seems to be her wrangling of support from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schrieber, in little more than an extended cameo).

I didn't have many opinions about Meir coming into Golda, but I do have thoughts about Kissinger and his rightful place in history. (Ideally, first prison, then Hell, but we can't always get what we want.) If the depiction of Meir is as accurate as the depiction of Kissinger—shown here as a soft-spoken peacemaker motivated entirely by goodness and human decency—I'm inclined to view it as a total whitewashing.

Helen Mirren and Liev Schreiber in GOLDA

As a film—as opposed to a historical treatment—Golda is most interesting stylistically. Nattiv creates an atmosphere not like a docudrama but like a horror movie, with an Aronofsky-esque tension to the camerawork, hallucinatory flourishes, and a menacingly discordant score by Dascha Dauenhauer. Throughout the film, while she deals with the war, Golda is also receiving treatment for the lymphoma that would kill her four years later, and these more intimate and subjective scenes—mirroring her stress and guilt over the military disasters—are generally more harrowing and convincing than the war-room drama.

(Some of Nattiv's nightmarish touches work well, as in the recurring scenes where Golda enters the hospital through the morgue to receive her treatments: In long tracking shots, we follow her and gradually see the shelves filling up with more and more bodies as the military situation worsens. Other elements—as when, listening to her soldiers walk into an ambush, Golda digs her fingernails into her own flesh and literally gets blood on her hands—are laid on as heavily as Mirren's makeup.)

In interviews, Nattiv has said that the original screenplay for this film was "was 80% war movie and 20% Golda," but—in part because of pandemic cutbacks—he had the idea to swap those ratios. Unfortunately, one suspects that while Golda's screen-time was increased, a proportionate amount of effort was not put into expanding, or deepening, her character. It still feels like we are getting about 20 percent of Golda, padded out with a lot of (cigarette) smoke and mirrors. (Brief footage of the real Meir at the end of the film makes her seem more complex and compelling than the woman we've been watching for two hours.)

Which leaves us where I began, assessing Golda primarily as a prolonged impersonation. Mirren, unsurprisingly, is good in the role, wringing out everything the script gives her to work with and more. (She is probably not to be blamed for the film's many weaknesses, unless we blame her for taking this role away from a Jewish actress in the first place. That's not my debate to weigh in on, but it's a debate that's happening, and worth having.)

Whether it will be enough to secure her awards attention remains to be seen, but it seems likely. As Oscar-bait goes, makeup-plus-historical-figure has always been catnip to the Academy, which just in the past 20 years has handed trophies to the grotesquely cosplayed stars of such mediocre and outright wretched fare as The Iron Lady, Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Bohemian Rhapsody. (Mirren herself, of course, already won an Oscar—much more deservedly—playing another world leader in Stephen Frear's excellent The Queen.) Personally, I don't think it's impossible to give a great performance in a mediocre movie, but it requires more of a character—and less of a caricature—than Mirren has embodied here.

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