Religion & Liberty Online

Golda: The Right Leader at the Right Time

(Image credit: Sean Gleason, Courtesy of Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures)

Fifty years ago, Israel was stunned by a surprise attack, the beginning of what became known as the Yom Kippur War. A new film starring Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as Golda Meir details the arduous decision-making process of a prime minister responsible not only for the lives of young soldiers but the very survival of her country, even as she barely clung to life herself.

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On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched an attack on Israel, killing more than 1,500 people and taking hostages, committing, filming, and publicizing on social media acts of terror that the citizens of democracies are simply unprepared to watch or understand. There is again war in the Middle East, and the IDF is now trying to annihilate Hamas in Gaza. But today the State of Israel is not itself in danger; in fact, with the Abraham Accords, there is for the first time a reasonable hope that the Arab states and Israel might find a peaceful accommodation.

The Yom Kippur War, October 6–25, 1973, the last time the State of Israel was in true existential danger and the precursor of peace with Egypt, the first Arab state to recognize Israel, is the subject of the new film Golda, directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv from a screenplay by Nicholas Martin. The film stars Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel during the war, and Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger, who had just become Nixon’s secretary of state before the war began, and whose diplomacy managed the conflict in search of a mutual accommodation between deadly enemies.

Golda is not quite a war movie, since it largely plays like an interior drama set in Meir’s apartment, in the residence of the government, and at an army command center. Nor is it a biography, although it focuses on Meir, since the film is primarily about her leadership during the war and framed by her testimony to the Agranat Commission. The government formed this commission to investigate the failures of military preparedness in response to popular protests; its critical report led to the resignation of Meir’s government in 1974.

Instead, Golda shows the predicament of Israel, as well as its peculiar character as a democracy, through one leader, Meir. She was born in the Ukraine in 1898 and immigrated to America in 1906 with her family, where she got an education and became a Zionist. She was a strong-willed child who disobeyed her family, wanting to make aliyah, the journey back to (then) the Land of Israel, as an adult, but was prevented by World War I. In 1921, having married, she moved to Palestine, which had just been taken from the Ottoman Empire by the British Empire under the League of Nations Mandate in 1920. She lived a political life after that, facing all the difficulties of preparing the Jews for statehood, and working especially in foreign affairs, rising gradually through all the important offices of state.

All this history is summarized in her attitude and her condition. This is not to say that those events made her what she was, but that in her war leadership we see the full expression of the beliefs and deeds that defined her, just like the prime-ministerial office was the peak of her achievements. Mirren acts the part wonderfully, a rare portrayal of a woman as a competent and confident leader, devoid of arrogance or petulance, involved in momentous events rather than in identity politics, and thus an homage to Meir. For the most part, the anger and fear, the uncertainty of events, are expressed by subtle changes in her eyes. Her major prop for characterization is Meir’s chain-smoking; the danger of the moment and the requirements of politics forbid saying what she must be thinking. As for her condition, Meir is old, worn, stooped, and suffering from the lymphoma that will eventually kill her and for which she goes to chemotherapy. It seems only her will is keeping her alive and that the only object of her will is to save Israel.

The camera follows Meir in her home and shows the suffering caused by politics; we are all mortal, but to dedicate oneself to high politics also invites madness, because one has to face the terrible burden of defense, of war, and that means dead soldiers—boys and young men. Their names, their pictures, the corpses in the morgue, the memory of their desperate appeals in the radio communications, the knowledge of the numbers of men lost in the battles, fill up her lonely private life, where she has only the support of a private secretary who is almost a daughter to her. Mirren’s performance suggests that endurance might be the defining bodily quality of a woman and that it might be better adapted to politics than the more heroic manly qualities. But with that endurance comes a weakness, a vulnerability to pain and guilt for all the suffering, a personal and private misery that cannot be assuaged by the political limits of office and authority that define public life.

Golda, as the informal title already suggests, is about democratic leadership. Meir is undoubtedly admirable, but there is nothing glorious in her. You may weep to witness her grandeur in the moment of ordeal and rejoice in her eventual triumph, but you will not be inspired to seek political honors. As much as the title, the frame of the story, the Agranat Commission judging her leadership on behalf of the Israeli democracy, reminds us of the limits of personal achievement, I walked away from the movie thinking that we have bought morality in our politics at the price of splendor; I think Goldais intended to do poetic justice, to give a democratic audience what they deserve, that is, to put them in the shoes of this great woman and experience vicariously some of her suffering, because it was incurred for the sake of democracy and civilization.

Golda also suggests something of the difference between men and women, since all the generals are men, great men, founders of the State of Israel, like Moshe Dayan, then minister of defense, and future great men like Ariel Sharon, then a daring general, famous for the Six-Day War, as well as others. They have a pride Meir doesn’t share, but they are also portrayed as too eager to act and somewhat fragile in the face of the initial surprise attack on October 6, which was devastatingly effective. Meir, on the other hand, is somewhat indecisive, splitting the difference on whether to mobilize entirely or not at all (the contradictory advice of her generals), but she does make decisions and accept the responsibility. Democratic civilian control of the military is asserted, which the constitutional arrangement at that time had not entirely settled. And something in the character of a ruling politician is revealed, a needed combination of iron will and a female willingness to forgive, to cajole, to wait, to threaten. But the subtlety of the portrayal and its relation to democracy would take too long to spell out in a brief review—watch the movie, you will notice the script is as intelligent as Mirren’s performance is sensitive.

There is, I think, only one important scene where Meir isn’t smoking, during Kissinger’s private visit to impose a ceasefire. All Meir’s qualities of persuasion and resolve show in that scene, encouraging us to see something of the importance of impressive politicians. Kissinger is portrayed as an intelligent and sympathetic friend of Israel, possessed of as much as power as patience, but primarily concerned with American problems: maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East, not least because of the dangers to the American economy posed by OPEC, and containing Soviet power, which was then allied with the Arab states, as it had previously been with Israel. To some extent, for America this is a proxy war. This is an Israeli film, however, so the focus is on their existential struggle and the difficulty of their position: on the one hand seeking an ally, on the other, striving for independence.

Golda comes to a conclusion with the victory of Israel, as rapid as its initial defeat, partly dependent on American support—the famous airlift replacing Israeli losses in materiel, Operation Nickel Grass. The political message is the importance of stability in government, since almost everyone in the leadership made serious mistakes in the beginning but then contributed to a remarkable victory. The story ends fittingly with Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire, inspired by his experience visiting the troops and singing for them during the war. The song takes its theme from one of the Yom Kippur prayers, which compares the unpredictable suffering of mankind with divine judgment, calling all to atone.

Golda is available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming platforms.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.