Thursday, August 17, 2023

'Golda' marred by docudrama flavor


The title is slightly misleading. Golda isn't a full-blown biopic about  former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir. It's a narrow-gauge look at how Meir handled the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the one in which Israel was attacked by Egypt, Syria and Jordan on Judaism's holiest day of the year. 
   Under a ton of prosthetic makeup, Helen Mirren plays Meir, a tough-minded woman who spends much of the movie interacting with the Israeli high command, including Israel's Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger).
    In this telling, Dyan comes off as less than heroic, cautioning against a large-scale mobilization of Israeli forces even though the   head of the Massad (Rotem Keinan) warned that an attack was imminent. For her part, Meir sometimes miscalculates. 
   Director Guy Nattiv, an Israeli who lives in the US, takes what struck me as an oddly off-kilter approach, introducing Meir with booming closeups of her wrinkled face and using music -- Dascha Dauenhauer wrote the score-- that wouldn't be out of place in an horror movie.
   In the days before and during the war, Meir was heavily burdened. 
   She was suffering from lymphoma but the condition didn't stop her from chain-smoking, puffing away even during radiation sessions.   
     She also agonized about mistakes that could cost lives. She keeps track of fallen Israeli soldiers, recording the number of casualties in a small notebook she carries.
     In depicting a war marked by both terrible setbacks and triumphs for Israel, Nattiv avoids the customary depiction of Israelis as brilliant tacticians who seldom err.
    An opening title card explains the movie's view about some of the Israeli bumbling. Buoyed by its 1967 victory, the country had fallen prey to hubris. Israel had become over-confident.
     The relationship between Israel and the US comes into play. 
     With President Nixon bombarded with Watergate issues, it fell to Henry Kissinger (played by Liev Schreiber) to calm Meir. Kissinger wanted to  keep Meir from intensifying conflicts between the US and Soviet Union, which was backing the Egyptians. 
   The heavy make-up on Mirren has an unintended consequence. Sometimes, it's impossible to ignore -- as in shots of Meir's swollen ankles. You keep searching for traces of the actress under the make-up, a distraction for me. 
    Suffering from cancer and coughing up blood, Meir looks as if she might at expire at any moment, although she's also unflinchingly severe and decisive when necessary.
     Perhaps to bolster verisimilitude, Nattiv intersperses news footage into the proceedings. A clip of Egypt's Anwar Sadat meeting with Meir during cease-fire talks makes for the movie's liveliest exchange.
    Golda has its moments but falters as a high-stakes political and war-time drama. The movie never seems to find its footing, partly because Golda dominates and the other characters are seldom developed beyond sketches, mouthpieces for various positions.
    A movie this focused can be intense but Golda sometimes feels as if it's moving too slowly, and Nattiv's dramatization of 18 turbulent days of Israeli history isn't always presented in clear, incisive fashion.  
   For all the cigarettes that Golda Meir smokes, the movie rarely catches fire.     

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