Guy Nattiv's GOLDA is a less a conventional biopic than an explanation pro vita sua of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's actions, or inactions, in the run up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Notoriously, Israel was caught napping ahead of a joint Egyptian-Syrian invasion on the Jewish High Holiday. Did Golda ignore intelligence warnings of troops massing on the border? Her leadership during this crisis remains highly contested, and in the war's aftermath Meir was dragged in front of the Agranat Commission to explain herself. She was also ejected from power at the next election. This film, using the Commission as a framing device, attempts to correct the historical record.
In this telling, Golda's advisors - Mossad chief Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan) and Defence minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) were at odds in their pre-attack advice. Her instinct told her to mobilise, but she knew this would be controversial ahead of Yom Kippur. Later in the film we learn that Mossad's incredibly expensive intelligence system was switched off in the days before the invasion, but Golda decided to take full responsibility for this and did not throw the agency under the bus. We also learn that Israel had to fight with one hand tied behind her back, forgoing a pre-emptive strike because Nixon would have disapproved. After all, this was in essence a proxy war between the US and Soviet Union.
As writer Nicholas Martin steps us through the days of the war I felt as if I understood the shifting balance of forces and the difficult tactical decisions that Golda had to make. We get a funny reference to publicity-hungry Ariel Sharon, but really the tone is deadly serious if not one of existential crisis. The film really comes alive in Golda's phone conversations with Liev Schreiber's Henry Kissinger, where she begs him for enough materiel to keep her armed forces functional. Or when in a brief reference to her childhood she describes her childhood in Ukraine, when Christians would celebrate Christmas by looking for Jews to beat up. When you grow up fearing fatal violence in your own home for being Jewish, you are prepared deep in your bones for an existential war.
It is hard not to sympathise with a woman who seems to carry the weight of the nation on her hunched shoulders - whose health is so bad she is secretly undergoing treatment for cancer, but cannot stop chain-smoking. There are beautifully subtle moments of feminine empathy. When Golda enters the cabinet room she pauses to ask the minute-taking secretary where her son is serving. She takes every soldier's death to heart. I know there has been controversy about Helen Mirren playing the role given that she is not Jewish, but I cannot fault her performance. She is transformed into Golda by amazing prosthetic work, with an accurate midwestern accent, and with a world-weariness coupled with inward steel.
Behind the lens I admired Guy Nattiv's direction - the choice not to stage battle scenes but to use real wartime footage. I also loved the sound direction of the film. Many times, we hear Golda enveloped in the sound of a military bombardment, signalling how enmeshed she is in the experience of her troops. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. I was expecting a hagiographic TV movie but got a far more considered, interestingly-made political drama.
GOLDA is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 100 minutes. It played Berlin 2023 and was released in the USA in August. It goes on release in the UK on October 6th.