Golda Meir was Israel’s first and only female prime minister from 1969 until 1974. During her tenure, Israel was involved in 19 days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. This time period is the focus of director Guy Nattiv’s film, GOLDA.
Yom Kippur, Israel’s holiest day, was on October 6th in 1973. During the night, combined forces from Egypt, Syria and Jordan mounted a surprise attack on the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Though there had been some warning that this might happen, Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) and her all-male cabinet do not take the imminent threat seriously.
In a few short hours, the Syrian troops defeat the Israelis, shocking Meir and her generals. As Israel scrambles to defend their territory, Meir must make some unpopular decisions, costing thousands of lives. After 19 days, Israeli and Egyptian leaders meet to enact a cease-fire.
But in April of 1974, Meir must appear before the Agranat Commission which is investigating the reasons behind Israel’s unpreparedness for the surprise attack. And though she is cleared of any wrongdoing, Meir is forced to resign.
Nattiv was only three months old when this war broke out. His mother and grandmother rushed with him to a shelter. But his mother’s memories of this violent period and his own curiosity about Golda Meir drove him to make this movie. According to Nattiv, it was Gideon Meir’s, Golda’s grandson, idea to have Helen Mirren play the titular role.
And what a marvelous idea it was. Mirren is the consummate acting professional. She gives each role she tackles her all and, in portraying Golda Meir, she is flawless. Aided by stellar work from costume designer Sinéad Kidao and hair and makeup supervisor Karen Hartley Thomas, Mirren is magically transformed into the grandmotherly Meir. Her mannerisms and dialect are spot-on, unfortunately the screenplay by Nicholas Martin does Mirren no favors.
Yes, GOLDA is about a very significant, short-lived period in Meir’s reign as prime minister. But, from the beginning, Martin’s script leaves the audience feeling as if they are dropped into this conflict with little prior historical data. And for that reason, the film is lacking.
It's obvious she’s the only woman of power in the room when she’s with her military advisors, but how did she get there and what do these men really think of her? As Israel encounters such a dire outcome, Martin’s script fails to deliver the intensity and dread experienced by this group of leaders faced with monumental uncertainties and loss of life.
Besides Mirren’s iconic performance, Camille Cottin stars as Lou Kadar, Meir’s personal assistant and constant companion. Hers is an elegant and understated, yet extremely powerful portrayal, quietly stealing a great deal of the spotlight for herself. She’s amazing. And in a smaller but pivotal role, Liev Schreiber appears as Henry Kissinger, The U.S. Secretary of State, who had forged a good working relationship with Meir.
Though some may find Nattiv’s efforts laudable, GOLDA’s overall tenor is one of despair, lacking in inspiration. What should have been a gripping account of one of Israel’s darkest periods has been relegated to a slow and mundane narrative.
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She smoked as many as 100 cigarettes a day. She was an elderly Israeli leader, the country’s only female prime minister. She had no experience in war, yet she was faced with making military decisions that greatly affected her beloved fellow citizens. And she was dying of cancer.
The new film GOLDA is not a biopic of Golda Meir but focuses on how she handled the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that lasted 19 days. Israel was attacked jointly by Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and despite heavy losses initially, the Jewish nation was able to recover much of the lost territory within days. The Israeli military heroes of the 1967 Six-Day War were largely incapable of making rational decisions. This group included the likes of Moshe Dayan, he of the patch over his left eye.
So, it was left to Meir to defend her country but also stave off Russian intervention as Moscow’s leaders indicated implicit support for Israel’s enemies. The United States was on high alert as historians tell us that nuclear war was a possibility.
It was Meir’s grandson who recommended to Israeli director Guy Nattiv that Oscar winner Helen Mirren play his grandmother. With ample help from hair and makeup supervisor Karen Hartley Thomas, Mirren became Golda Meir. Looking at archival footage during this 100-minute film, it’s often difficult to separate the real Golda from Mirren’s incredible transformation.
Mirren, as you might expect, is quietly sensational in the subdued role of Golda Meir. Golda was a chain smoker extraordinaire. She’s never without a cigarette. Even while undergoing MRIs for her cancer, she manages to light up. Her constant companion and personal assistant Lou Kadar, whom she treats like a family member, is astutely portrayed by French actress Camille Cottin. Kadar is even there to clean up the mess when Golda spits up blood.
The archival footage is often fascinating. The most memorable occurs when Golda Meir and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat sign a peace treaty in 1979. And her relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is portrayed as very close which they reportedly were.
Liev Schreiber is remarkable as Kissinger, and it is his exchanges with Mirren that ring especially true. GOLDA is not without moments of humor. When Kissinger explains to Golda --- (1) He is an American, (2) He is Secretary of State, and (3) He is a Jew --- she replies that here we read from right to left.
After the war, Golda could not escape the investigation by a five-member panel of the Agranat Commission to comment on Israel’s lack of preparation for the Arab attacks. She was not held responsible for any derelict of duty but was ultimately forced to resign.
October 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, so the release of this movie is timely. Although this was an historic event in the history of the Middle East, in GOLDA there are no battle scenes or outside events to detract from the confines of the war rooms. Golda Meir courageously stood her ground opposite an array of an all-male cabinet who argued about the proper strategy to employ.
Golda Meir died in 1978 and her legacy is mixed. She was 80 years old.
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