Golda Review | The Short Version

by Andrew Parker

Well performed, concise, but underwhelming overall, Guy Nattiv’s war drama/biopic Golda succumbs to its own self-imposed limitations. While Golda boasts an outstanding lead performance from the reliable Helen Mirren as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, it’s also telling a hyper specific story that could use more space and context to fully flower on screen. While some of the best biographies and historical dramas have zeroed in on watershed events in a person’s life, Golda’s cramped view of events keeps the viewer at a distance rather than inviting them into a volatile political powder keg.

Nattiv (Skin) and screenwriter Nicholas Martin (Florence Foster Jenkins) look at Meir during one of the most brutal conflicts in Middle Eastern history, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when – following several other brief wars and skirmishes – Israel was on the receiving end of a surprise offensive from a coalition of Arab states, led primarily by Egypt and Syria. Caught somewhat unawares after declining the chance to carry out a preemptive strike (a move designed to appease American allies and avoid triggering the involvement of the Russians), Meir and her military advisors scramble to secure troops and weaponry for Israel, attempting to retaliate while on the back foot.

The closest point of cinematic comparison for Golda might be Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill profile, Darkest Hour, a film that examines a political and military leader at a make-or-break moment for their career and country. Golda bristles with a similar sort of fashion, albeit on more of a Masterpiece Theater level budget. Meir, a tough talking chain smoker, tries to cope with mounting health problems and crippling anxiety, all the while trying to make it seem like she’s keeping her head while everyone else is losing their’s. There’s a lot of movement to Nattiv’s presentation, complete with quick edits, and Martin’s script crams a wealth of historical information into rapid fire dumps of exposition that seem like they should be important for context, but barely end up registering before the film is off to witness Meir putting out another metaphorical fire.

Although she’s under a considerable amount of prosthetic make-up, Mirren’s acting chops do a lot of the heavy lifting for Nattiv. Her portrayal of Meir is convincing and charismatic, capable of creating a character piece amid a lot of messily assembled history. Prior knowledge of the Yom Kippur War is a minimal barrier to entry here, but that conflict is intrinsically tied to events happening in the decades leading up to it. That rich history of Middle Eastern conflict is taken for granted here, which is especially disappointing after opening titles that suggest Golda will be a film about “the consequences of hubris.”

The view from the top of a conflict is always a narrow one. Although Nattiv makes a point to showcase how Meir took great pains to note the cost of Israeli lives during the conflict, the overall impact of the war is still witnessed from a distance. Meir is a major player in every scene of the film, and as such, if she didn’t witness what was going on, the viewer isn’t privy to any further context. There are noteworthy characters around the periphery of Meir who would have equally fascinating perspectives on events, many of them featuring actors giving detailed, thorughtful performances. Camille Cottin as Golda’s personal assistant, Rami Heuberger as a tortured military leader on the perpetual verge of quitting, Ohad Knoller as power hungry/showboating general Ariel Sharon, and Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger are all a joy to watch. But their perspectives are muffled for the sake of keeping things as brisk as possible.

And for that matter, so too is Meir’s perspective, as Golda never fully picks a lane. It’s quite watchable in the moment, but without additional narrative detail, Golda isn’t much more than a brief fluttering through history. It’s not quite a biopic, and not quite a war movie, so it settles for being a chamber drama that only works in fits and starts. Nattiv and his cast capture the immediacy of the moment well, but none of them can overcome the limitations that have been imposed on the material. It’s a film light on both celebration and condemnation, but there’s not much in its place. Golda is more of an examination of mistakes through the benefit of hindsight, but it forgets to include discussions of what made those missteps so pivotal. And amid all that noisy crosstalk, the character and the history that Golda revolves around gets lost.

Golda opens in select theatres on Friday, August 25, 2023.

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