‘Golda’ Is a Moving Portrait of Israel’s First Female Prime Minister – Kveller
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‘Golda’ Is a Moving Portrait of Israel’s First Female Prime Minister

Writer Nicholas Martin hopes this movie leads to more productive conversations about Israel.


via Sean Gleason, Courtesy of Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures

Nicholas Martin still asks himself, “What would Golda do?”

In “Golda,” which Martin, who is known for his work on “Florence Foster Jenkins,” wrote and produced, and which was directed by Academy Award-winning Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, we get to spend an hour and a half — or rather, 10 days of the Yom Kippur War — with the first and only woman prime minister of Israel. But Martin has spent years with her memory, hearing stories about Meir and her role in that war from experts like “The Watchman Fell Asleep” writer Uri Bar-Joseph and even Golda’s own grandson, Gideon Meir.

That kind of studious admiration is palpable in the movie, which in its own way, hopes to rehabilitate the reputation of a leader who’s still blamed for one of Israel’s most tragic wars (Meir resigned from her role as Prime Minister following the war’s great losses). It’s a worthwhile ode to a complicated, natural-born leader.

Helen Mirren’s Meir is meticulously crafted — both by an incomparable actor, who Nattiv tells Kveller was an absolute marvel to work with, and by a makeup department that made Mirren’s highly recognizable face utterly indiscernible, only her signature voice and cadence seeping through to remind us that we’re watching an actress embody the sturdy and frazzle-haired Jewish leader. Martin says it was Gideon Meir, during a boozy lunch, who told him Mirren was “the only one” who could play that role. “You’ve got to get Helen Mirren,” he implored. So they did.

Mirren reminds me so much of my Jewish elders that I felt like I could smell the whiff of mothballs in their closets while watching the film. The movie spends time with her in dimly lit corridors, war rooms and dark hospitals where she gets treated for cancer, flanked by her doting secretary Lou Kedar, played by a grave-faced Camille Cottin. Theirs is the most central of Meir’s relationships that we see in the film, and along with her conversations with State Secretary Henry Kissinger, played by a perfect Liev Schreiber, it makes for some of the movie’s most vulnerable and compelling moments. If with Kedar, we get to see Golda’s humanity, with Kissinger we see her true political cunning.

There’s one scene in which Kissinger, who has just landed in Israel, is offered a plate of borscht by Meir, who in multiple instances in this movie is seen feeding people (she was known for her cooking and baking prowess, and you can even try making Golda’s recipe for matzah ball soup). When the American statesman tells her that he’s full, she guilts trip him into taking the soup. “She’s a survivor,” she says of her housekeeper, who made the dish. Leah, Meir’s actual housekeeper, was indeed a survivor of Auschwitz.

“I thought it was an example of Golda manipulating Kissinger,” Martin tells Kveller over Zoom. “Kissinger comes in and says, ‘I’m full.’ And then she says, now you’ve got to eat more. She’s gonna make him even more uncomfortable. And then she’s going to twist his arm by saying, ‘If you don’t eat it, you know, you’re denying this woman who is a survivor.’ So it just strikes me as perfect Golda: It’s funny. It’s quite cruel. It’s manipulative. And she was sort of giving him a bit of a pummeling before she started really getting to work with the negotiations.”

“Golda” is ultimately an anti-war movie. Nattiv tells Kveller he was inspired by movies that he grew up with like “Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now,” which he thinks of as “films that can look deep in the eye of the American people and say ‘this was terrible.'”

“I didn’t want to do a propaganda film. I didn’t want to make a romantic film,” Nattiv says. He’s quite successful at not ignoring the gravity of this war, which led to the loss of thousands of soldiers, a whole generation of youth. “All those boys… I will carry that pain to my grave,” Meir tells the Agranat Commission that investigated her government’s military failings during the conflict; she then asks for those words to be stricken from any records.

As for Martin, he tried to give as accurate an account of the conflict as he could. “The truth is always going to be more interesting than anything I can make up,” he says. History buffs will certainly enjoy the details in this movie, yet for others those details might feel encumbering. Some meetings were condensed, and telegraphs were turned into phone conversations for dramatic effects, but Martin is confident in the accuracy and thoroughness of his tale. Still, he knows this is ultimately not a historical document. “I see this film as the start of a discussion as much as anything else, and I make no great claim that it is the definitive truth. Far from it. I’m saying, look, this is what I discovered. Tell me if I’m right, and if I’m wrong, point it out.”

“Golda” is brilliant in other ways. It’s quite a feat to make a movie about Israel so palatable to the general public. We all know how hard it is to even have a polite conversation about the Jewish state at a friendly dinner. In fact, that’s precisely the reason Martin, who is not Jewish, ended up so drawn to this story. He found himself, over and over, having conversations about Israel that felt discordant and uninformed. He was drawn first to research Israel more deeply and as he dug, one image clearly emerged: this woman who he remembered from TV broadcasts during the Yom Kippur war when he was 10 — her shoes, her cigarettes, her distinctive features. “I just dug deeper and deeper into that, and then this extraordinary story of her incredible leadership emerged, and all the complexity around it.”

The Yom Kippur War is a perfect vehicle not only to tell the full story of Golda Meir — paying tribute to her political savvy, her history as a child hiding from antisemitism in Ukraine, her humanity and devotion to both her advisors and her people, even at the cost of her own legacy — but the perfect avenue for telling a story about Israel in general. It’s a complex moment in history that, all these decades later, is still being recalculated, and it’s a war in which the Jewish state was clearly under attack, in a dire fight for its own survival. Telling the story of this moment that changed the tides of world history through the eyes of a history-making woman played by someone who draws audiences like Helen Mirren does, helmed by bonafides like Marin and Nattiv, is the perfect storm that makes a movie about the most controversial countries in the world accessible to mainstream audiences.

As for Nattiv, who was born in Tel Aviv, he was a few months old during the Yom Kippur War and grew up with Golda mostly as a symbol. It was while making this moody, evocative biopic that he got to discover a leader the likes of which he wishes existed in Israel today — someone who cares for the country and loves its people more than their own ego.

“I think that she’s a different kind of leader that we don’t have today,” he says. “If you look at Benjamin Netanyahu, if you look at what’s going on today in the judicial system, and how you destroy every nook and cranny that these leaders had built over the years… [Meir] took responsibility. She’s loyal. You can believe her… and she puts her trust in the judicial system, in judges in the High Court.”

“I myself went to demonstrations in Israel with my father and with other war veterans that are very scared about the situation,” Nattiv adds. “I miss those leaders from the past, like Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Golda Meir. They handled things differently. They had different values than what we see today.”

One clear difference with Meir was the fact that she was Israel’s first and only female prime minister. We hear how this impacted her by remarks she makes about people not standing up when she enters the room, acknowledging that she was treated differently for being a woman. She is also the only person to see and acknowledge the other women in the room, like her secretary and stenographer, when the male military leaders’ eyes seem to filter them out. Martin believes Golda “didn’t care” that she was a woman up against a wall of prejudice. Like Margaret Thatcher, in his eyes, she just “got on with it.” For those looking for a strong commentary about female leadership, Meir’s feminist message is more of a side note. Still, the movie makes clear that in a room full of male military giants, Golda was the one to take the fall.

“I think the fact that she’s a woman certainly didn’t help her at that point,” Martin says about the Yom Kippur War, “because it’s so much easier to blame this stupid old woman. No one really wanted to blame Moshe Dayan, this god of war, this hero. The narrative was established, and it’s painful to change that. You build someone up as a hero, and then you discover that they have feet of clay.”

It is indeed very hard to change the stories we’ve built in our heads, but “Golda” does a powerful job at that, showing us the story of how Meir dealt with the war with valor and determination. Martin hopes that this movie also leads others to change some of the established narratives in their heads.

“I hope that the non-Jewish audience, people that don’t know Israel and maybe don’t know much about the Middle East, will take a greater interest in Israel’s history. With a knowledge of Israeli history, the complexity of the present situation becomes more understandable,” Martin says.

“Instead of this black-and-white world where there are good people and bad people, can we not see that there is actually just tragedy? And what is the way out of this tragedy? I would hope that at least the complexities of the Yom Kippur War might offer a way in for people to start exploring and learning about Israel. There’s a tragic aspect to Israeli life in history, but there is also extraordinary achievement and hope.”

One story of Golda that stuck with Martin came from a friend, who served as a commando just before the Yom Kippur war. As he was about to go on a mission, a car pulled up and there was Golda with a flask of soup and some sandwiches she’d made for the troops. “As they sailed off, she waved on the dock as though they were her children,” Martin says. “I heard this a lot. There was this personal interest. Whenever soldiers died before the war, she would make a point of phoning or visiting the family. I think she saw herself absolutely as the mother of the nation. I think that was very genuine.”

“I feel she’s with me in my own life,” he adds. “And that’s been a comfort for me, certainly.”

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