In 2007, Helen Mirren, inarguably one of the greatest film performers of all time, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in The Queen, where she portrayed the late Queen Elizabeth II in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The balance between stoic properness, grief for her family, and inner conflict over her personal feelings for her former daughter-in-law was a striking display of minimalist yet emotional discipline, easily earning her both the Oscar and the BAFTA.
Over a decade and a half later, we have what is clearly an attempt to garner more hardware for Mirren. In what can be safely regarded as the opening salvo of Awards Season, the stalwart actress stars in Golda, trading in the regal countenance of Elizabeth for another head of state, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Taking place chiefly during the Yom Kippur War, the film attempts to show Meir as a woman thrust into the annals of history despite being seen as a caretaker government leader before the fighting broke out. The main focus is on her ability to prioritize the needs of her country, handling the disparate personalities in and out of her cabinet, and meeting the moment when fate calls upon her.
It’s a perfect concept for a biopic. I remember as a teenager learning about Meir and finding her story fascinating, if nothing else than because Israel had a woman leading it a mere 25 years after it was founded as an independent nation, and yet as Americans hadn’t had one in 220 years to that point (still haven’t). Also, given how many times Israel fell under attack in its formative years, the fact that the country still stands is impressive, regardless of any personal political feelings I might have about its current leadership.
Unfortunately, we basically get no real intrigue in this film. Instead of giving us an insightful look at one of the most important figures in 20th Century history, the movie is slapdash, tonally confused, poorly structured, and shoddily produced, including several easily avoidable mistakes. As such, this clearly goes into the pile of what I call “Showcase Films,” projects that seemingly only exist to elevate the profile of a single performer in hopes of garnering awards in one specific area to artificially inflate a picture that otherwise wouldn’t warrant more than passing consideration.
For the most part Mirren does a fine job. She certainly looks the part, a credit to the hair and makeup team, and when the pressure’s on, she plays Meir as someone who rightly rose to the occasion. Her British accent shows through more than it should, particularly when compared with actual footage shown at the end with Meir holding a news conference with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who launched the invasion against Israel on the high holiday. But dialectical accuracy isn’t the biggest of concerns so long as she gets the figure’s actions correct, and in that respect, Mirren largely succeeds.
The problem is everything else. For some ungodly reason, director Guy Nattiv (Oscar winner for his short film, Skin, which showed more righteousness and understanding of identity issues in 20 minutes than this movie does in 100) and screenwriter Nicholas Martin decided that two things needed to be paramount in this story. One is that Golda should experience the nearly three-week war as something of a vicarious horror movie. This is depicted through numerous panic attacks and nightmares brought on by her being in a Tel Aviv control room as military operations are underway, both successful and not. She hears reports come in from the fronts (Syria attacked from the north along with Egypt in the south as a coordinated strike), as young soldiers fight and die. This is supplemented by Dascha Dauenhauer’s truly oppressive score, louder and more bombastic than anything you’ll hear in an actual war movie, and for some reason, a handful of jump scares. It’s not enough to trigger the Jump Fail protocols, but it is certainly a bad choice.
The second is that more important than anything else, we have to feature Meir’s chain smoking. I understand that she enjoyed her cigarettes, which is ironic given the fact that she’s going through radiation therapy for lymphoma during the film’s events. And I understand that this was the 1970s, where smoking was still not only commonplace, but completely accepted as normal. But what we see in this film is ridiculous. Her smokes are tant amount to being a separate character in the film, seemingly used as a nonsense substitute for the literal fog of war. Nearly every scene is punctuated by Mirren lighting up her next cigarette, as if the scene itself only exists to narratively get us to Meir’s next smoke break. Each time they do it, it adds nothing but five extra seconds to the end of each sequence, creating a level of padding suitable only to an NFL player.
All of this is at the expense of Meir’s character development and the plot structure, which is completely misfired. The film begins with her testifying before the Agranat Commission, an inquiry into the events of the war, and whether Meir and others bore legal responsibility for the loss of life. Normally, this framing device opens itself up to scrutiny based on how much of the “testimony” involves conversations and events where the “witness” doesn’t participate. But I can’t even bother with that critique, or even nitpick it, because the film itself only deigns to remind the viewer of the actual setting three times after that opening shot of Mirren walking into a Spartan room with a single table across from five people sitting at a longer table. It’s completely pointless. If you’re not going to commit to your own conceit, just tell the story in traditional linear fashion. There’s no reason to cut back to the makeshift courtroom if there’s not going to be any legitimate commentary or perspective on the events. The closest we get is one quasi mic drop moment where Golda pulls out a notebook where she kept a tally of all casualties. We see that book a number of times in the movie, and we’re shown that she writes far more into it than numbers, but only that one statistic, one we didn’t see her jot down, has plot relevance.
Because of these baffling decisions, we get almost no real understanding of Golda Meir the person. There are only the faintest hints of her intelligence, diplomacy, and cunning, most of which is used in conversations with Henry Kissinger (an absolutely wasted Liev Schreiber). Occasionally we see her decisive nature, particularly in regards to her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), who becomes visibly shaken after witnessing the firepower being used against the unprepared Israeli forces firsthand. After reassuring Dayan that she needs him, she tells the rest of her staff not to take any orders from him, and that he’s finished. That’s solid leadership. Sadly, it’s almost instantly undone when Dayan is brought into every meeting and treated as if nothing has happened and his advice is actively sought by Meir and the rest of the cabinet. The closest we get to seeing her sense of empathy is through a nameless stenographer (Emma Davies), whose son is on the front lines. The camera checks in on her level of motherly worry from time to time (notably no actual character does), but whatever the payoff might be, there’s no real satisfaction in the moment because we know nothing about this person. Hell, for a movie about the first female prime minister of Israel, it barely even passes the Bechdel Test (one of the most idiotic and arbitrary metrics in all of pop culture, but I’ll invoke it here for the sake of argument), as the only other named woman in the film, Meir’s right-hand and confidante Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottlin) is technically only name-checked through lower third text in an early scene, and you can easily miss it if you’re like me and read the subtitles of a radio broadcast that are on screen at the same time. Meir herself never mentions Kaddar verbally that I can recall.
Speaking of those subtitles, they’re just one of many production shortfalls this film has. They play on and off the screen too fast for the average person to read, and oftentimes there are spelling and grammar errors. For one of the more blatant examples, during one of Meir’s night terrors, she recalls a transmission from a doomed soldier where he screams that he doesn’t want to die and pleads for someone to “send help.” That’s what we got in the moment. During Meir’s dream, it’s printed on screen as “sent help.” That’s just goddamn lazy!
Going further, the film refuses to set any kind of thematic tone. Some moments Meir is stern and assertive, telling Kaddar that she won’t be taken alive if the Egyptians reach Tel Aviv. In others, she’s meant to seem almost comical as she goads Kissinger into eating borscht made by her housekeeper despite him protesting that he’s quite full and ill. Instead of seeing the war play out on screen, we only get blurry satellite images that take up the entire screen with incredibly loud sound effects and fucked up music cues (one theme stunningly incorporates the rattle of machine gun fire into a jazz percussion motif for no discernable reason). Ohad Knoller plays Ariel Sharon in a brief cameo where he’s a hot-headed young war hawk who wants to attempt an impossible attack, only for Meir to wink at the audience by telling Sharon that he will himself be prime minister one day. People alternate between speaking Hebrew and English basically on a whim, sometimes mid-sentence. The editing ignores basic continuity, as a progression of shots will show Meir holding a sheet of paper, then a cigarette from a different POV, then the paper will magically end up in someone else’s hands. For a film about managing battle, it’s surprisingly disorganized.
This is the exact type of movie that audiences hate to see when Awards Season rolls around. It feels cheap and shallow, hastily thrown together in a crass attempt to accumulate hardware it hasn’t earned. Yes, Helen Mirren does a good job, but it’s not even in the top half of her catalog of great performances. At its core, the story of Golda Meir and the Yom Kippur War is about respect. It was about one of the most crucial and inspiring figures of her time earning the respect of her peers on the world stage and within her own government, and most importantly it was about Israel finally being respected as a sovereign nation with a right to exist. And yet, in spite of all that, this film doesn’t even respect its protagonist enough to go above the bare minimum in telling her story. Golda deserved better.
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