Golda: A Biopic Without the Bio

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Lila Anderson

Editor: Edu Kenedi

Golda left me craving cigarettes, at least three. I wanted a defiant cigarette to be more like the modest yet fearsome Golda Meir herself, indulging in her last human coping mechanism in every scene. 

I wanted a weary cigarette to honor the fact that I’d been here before, thanks to other Israel-set productions of recent years, with their retro shoes, sweaty, dusty actors, and beige color palettes working to transport me to the Middle East of the 60s and 70s (think The Spy, The Operative, Operation Finale). 

I wanted a final cigarette to smoke upright in bed after the thing finally ended, just to take the edge off the disappointment of what could have been. 

Golda is a biopic centered on the 19-day Yom Kippur War, fought between Arab and Israeli forces exactly 50 years ago under Golda Meir’s historic leadership as PM. This piece of history has taken on renewed significance following the October 7th attacks on Israel by Hamas, which were timed to coincide with the war’s 50th anniversary. After this weekend, Golda unintentionally invites us to pay attention to how Israel’s current leadership will respond to violence perpetrated by groups who have placed themselves squarely in the tradition of the Arab coalition of 1973.

Director Guy Nattiv’s use of historical footage and sound bites fits well into his depiction of the tense conflict, which made even the eye-patched Moshe Dayan (then-Israeli Minister of Defense) vomit as he watched the hell of war break loose from his helicopter. Unfortunately, Golda presents history as one damned thing after another, as captions guide the viewer through this short conflict in 19 discrete episodes, giving the film a plodding feel. In other words, director Guy Nattiv wins the history battle but loses the narrative war.

Ok, it wasn’t that bad. After all, it featured international treasure Helen Mirren, acting somewhere under thick layers of wrinkling makeup, an unkempt wig, and spectacular prosthetic cankles that stole the show. All this was essential for Mirren to play a woman whose vibe could not be further from her own. 

Henry Kissinger was also there, played by a gravel-voiced Liev Schrieber. He floats in and out by phone from plush Washington quarters glinting with the spoils of his exploits in the East. Kissinger shares the screen with his fellow European-born, American-bred counterpart, grappling with her over their shared Jewish identity as they discuss their next moves on the diplomatic chessboard. 

With Kissinger in the picture, it’s no surprise when we are asked to reflect on tough questions of realpolitik. These crop up when Golda suggests an attack on Yom Kippur, shocking even her hardened generals, and when she and Kissinger work to negotiate a ceasefire with the enemy against the will of hardline Israeli warmongers. Similar questions will inevitably arise again after this weekend’s attacks, which prompt us to consider their impact on the US-brokered normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations. 

Notably, Nattiv makes use of repetitive bird’s-eye scenes of Golda navigating rickety stairs on her way to radiation therapy. To get there, she is for some reason forced to walk through a hospital morgue steadily filling with war dead (she’s still smoking, of course). We are made to realize that this is character development, as are silent scenes of Golda’s personal secretary pulling out clumps of her boss’s hair in the bath, unsexing the woman who bears the weight of the State of Israel. While these scenes do well to communicate Golda’s stoicism and grit, they are no substitute for the kind of psychological profile that the film unfortunately never delivers.

So while Golda works as an Israeli history lesson, I left the cinema knowing next to nothing about its subject’s life beyond the 19 days of war. I never thought I would have craved a flashback this much, something to show how her birth in Ukraine, early years growing up in Wisconsin, and making aliyah at a young age, all of which shaped her as Israel’s first and only woman PM. Only her gruff Midwestern vernacular hearkens back to this fascinating story: “Snap out of it,” she barks at one-eyed Dayan when he tries to resign. “What does your gut tell you?” asks the head of Mossad, to which the ever-wry Golda responds, “My gut is none of your business.” 

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