Not Even Helen Mirren Can Save Disjointed Golda Meir Biopic [Berlin]
Feb 22, 2023
War is perhaps cinema’s most enduring — and prolific — muse. From Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” to Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” war movies are some of the greatest classics within cinema history, from the sense-numbing bloodbaths of battlefields to the adrenaline that lingers within operation rooms as history-making calls are about to be made.
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Still, if war proves a fruitful inspiration to many directors, it can also be a notoriously elusive mistress to others. Guy Nattiv joins the latter category with “Golda,” which focuses on the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War. The politician, who served as Israel’s Prime Minister between 1969 and 1974, was the region’s first and only female head of state and the fourth elected female head of state in the world. Here, she is played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren under heavy layers of prosthetics.
Nattiv offers very little context to the history behind the 1973 armed conflict. Launched on Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, the war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states saw Egyptian and Syrian forces attempt to win back territory lost to Israel during the third Arab-Isareli war in 1967 and eventually drew in both the United States and the Soviet Union into a non-confrontational defense of their allies. A vignette emulating the aesthetics of a Netflix documentary stitches together archival material in an attempt to illuminate the viewer on the history of the state of Israel and the sociopolitical turmoil that fueled the conflict during the opening credits, but the effort is of little help.
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In this careless set-up, “Golda” fails as a war movie, impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the Israeli-Arab conflict. It fails as a biopic, too, by refusing to scrutinize how Golda rose to power — and, most importantly, how she kept at it. The woman at the center of one of the defining moments of modern history is made one-dimensional by the film’s lack of interest in portraying Meir as anything more than a witty grandmother with a vast repertoire of sharp one-liners. Mirren is suffocated under rubbery latex and permanently enveloped in a cloud of smoke, puffing cigarettes even when being prepped for the chemotherapy meant to fight the aggressive lymphoma eating away at her unhealthy lungs.
Nattiv’s obsession with Meir’s infamous feet borders on the distasteful, the camera trailing the Prime Minister’s bloated ankles whenever she enters a room. The director is unable to resist adding in a quip about the term “Golda’s shoes,” still used to this day in Israel to describe something ugly and old-fashioned. If “Golda” struggles to find the time to enlighten the audience on the political career of the teacher-turned-Prime Minister and its many controversies, it seems to have all the time in the world and more to fixate on the cartoonish traits of the woman at its core.
Curiously, the most personable we see Meir is when she is in the company of Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), Nixon’s Secretary of State. Golda, born in Ukraine but raised in Milwaukee, is drawn to this fellow European-born, American-raised Jewish man, the two able to tender to their friendship despite the growing tensions between their states. The rapport between Mirren and Schreiber offers a rare glimmer of mellowness in a film that is otherwise painfully stiff. Golda welcomes Kissinger to her home as the war ravages the Israeli borders, the politician calmly feeding the man as they discuss the future of not only the Middle East but the modern world. The two lovingly discuss the misery of Russian literature and the merits of homemade food before moving political pawns, Kissinger’s neutral stance a personal hit to Meir. “I thought we were friends, Henry,” she says as the two bid farewell.
It is a testament to the emotional frigidness of “Golda” that the tenderest moment in this chronicling of the loss of thousands of young lives is a fleeting meeting between two political allies turned friends, Nattiv’s effort a futile exercise in historical rereading that bypasses depth on its way to aimlessness. [D+]
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