‘Golda’ review: An impressive Helen Mirren can’t save one-sided legacy biopic embedded with a fear of Meir | Berlinale
Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s latest film is a biopic about the first and only female prime minister of Israel. Helen Mirren is nearly unrecognisable as the titular Israeli politician; she looks old, in bad health and is almost always hunched over. This film attempts to paint the controversial Zionist prime minister in a new, authentic light. But it offers virtually nothing in the way of getting to know Golda Meir. It’s told from a glossed over, Israeli perspective that sways away from getting into her political views in order to portray her as an icon who saved her country from collapse.
Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Mirren) is notified of the rapid build up of Arab forces from Egypt and Syria just days before the beginning of what would be later called the Yom Kippur War. A strategic military meeting is held to determine what the best path of action is. This is paired with Meir’s ongoing future testimony to the Agranat Commission that acts as a narrative device to structure the flashbacks. Meir ignores Mossad chief Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan) who warns of imminent invasion, which would go on to cost many more lives than necessary. Meir is a chainsmoker in declining health as the war begins, going regularly to the hospital for cancer treatment sessions. What happens next forces Meir and her command to make difficult decisions to protect the land that they claim.
It’s been publicly stated that most of the personal details seen in Golda comes from a series of documents that were released decades after her death. In these documents, Meir’s bad health was revealed, along with how her military commanders failed in many ways. Showing how defective the military command was during the Yom Kippur War is Nattiv’s only attempt to criticise anything, and it isn’t enough. Nattiv, an Oscar winner for his controversial 2018 live action short film Skin and its feature-length adapation, is so focused on Meir’s legacy as an iconic leader for Israeli citizens that he is blinded by the greater issues that could’ve been tackled. Going off such little information is clearly the film’s biggest problem as it skims over almost everything because Nattiv and his co-writer Nicholas Martin either don’t know enough or are knowingly naïve.
It’s plain to see that the duo knowingly paint the biopic in this manner. Meir, a settler who moved from the USA to Palestine at the time of the British mandate, famously stated that “there were no such thing as Palestinians”. I bring up this quote as an example of her views to those who are considering watching the film or have seen it because there is no such mention of Palestinians or anything of the like in the film. It only focuses on the high-stakes military actions of defending Israel and the task of being recognised as a sovereign state by their enemies, avoiding what made Meir a powerful leader amongst her almost exclusively male counterparts and a controversial figure to the outside world.
The strange thing is, Golda works as a film as it is well-made and has some good performances. Monos and Bodies Bodies Bodies cinematographer Jasper Wolf does a grand job bringing Mirren’s Meir to life in the lonely fluorescent corridors of Israel’s defense fortifications. There are many imposing close-ups of Mirren’s evocative eyes and wides of her walking alone. The shot choices and Mirren’s performance emphasise her seclusion and the overwhelming circumstances that she faced as leader of the nation. Wolf’s shots elevate the film’s dull and rather uninteresting story. Much of the Yom Kippur War is easily researchable online or through documentaries which go into much more detail. Most of the battling is done off-screen, most likely a budget issue, with the action relayed through radio comms and documentary footage. The one scene of a tank battle is shown from the perspective of a helicopter with shaky, terrible CGI. Whenever something goes the wrong way, Mirren is shot in close-ups as flashes of found footage show brief glimpses of reality on the battlefield. It’s a strange editing technique that culminates as the film wraps up by replacing the fictionalised, black-and-white documentary-like footage featuring Mirren with the real Golda Meir talking to Egyptian President Muḥammad Anwar Sādāt.
Despite some dynamic filmmaking, Guy Nattiv’s Golda Meir biopic falls rather flat as it fails to capture the authenticity it promised prior its Berlinale premiere. Helen Mirren does a good job, as always, in bringing to life the selected parts of the former Israeli prime minister’s life. There is a good film somewhere within Golda, but its naivety and fear of properly delving into Meir is a core failure.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. Bleecker Street Media will release Golda in the U.S. on August 25, 2023.