By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Director Guy Nattiv uses the symbolism of birds throughout the movie “Golda.” Birds show up at the very beginning, when the modern State of Israel is being fashioned out of the former Palestinian Mandate in 1948.
Birds are next depicted flying as scenes from the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Six-Day War play out on the screen. Birds show up again when the 1973 Yom Kippur War looms large. Birds appear once again after the fallout from the war and the enormous loss of young men is realized by Israeli authorities, as the politicians demand answers including those from their prime minister.
From the wispy plumes of smoke that occupy the first frames of the film, we know intuitively of the presence of Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, played stoically and with reverence by Helen Mirren. Mirren is the only actor to have achieved the triple crown of acting in both the United States and the United Kingdom. (She has won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award, both a Tony Award and an Olivier Award and multiple Emmy and British Academy Television Awards.)
This is the first of two Jewish-themed films being released this year starring Mirren, the other being the Holocaust thriller “White Bird.” But since she is the primary focus of this film from start to finish, “Golda” would probably be considered the more noteworthy of the two for Dame Helen.
The opening establishes the craggy, serious face of Mirren in a close-up, drawing a cigarette close to her lips and inhaling the ever-present smoke into her body. Those who are accustomed to seeing the actress as a comely, shapely woman will have a hard time coming to terms with the makeup that totally transforms her into the stodgy 75-year old premier. Her posture, clothing and movement sell the role completely. To say that few in the world could accomplish such an incredible feat of acting is probably an understatement. Rather, the question might more adequately be phrased: “Who else could have played Golda Meir as well?”
As the film opens, we learn of a government tribunal investigating the supposed unpreparedness of the Israelis in 1973, what the film announces as Israel’s “hubris.” Immediately after the opening shot, we see her extinguish her cigarette, exit her limousine and prepare to enter a building surrounded by angry protestors brandishing signs.
Thus, we know that most of the film is shown in flashback. Golda Meir is speaking before the commission charged with investigating the reasons why the Israeli forces were caught off-guard in 1973.
While publicly battling the Arab menace on all sides, the camera focuses on the private battle she is waging against the blood cancer (myeloid lymphoma) that would take her life five years later. She is seen entering Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem from a private basement entrance with her bodyguards and confidante, as she moves past the empty rows of the temporary morgue there. When she enters the first time, there are but a few scattered bodies. As the war heats up and her radioactive cobalt sessions continue, the number of bodies skyrockets.
Mirren plays Meir as an enigmatic figure. She is a woman capable of a depth of feeling, taking time methodically to record the huge number of dead in a given campaign, but then tearing up when having to inform a co-worker of the death of her tank commander son. She understands her enemies better than they know themselves.
As a prime minister in charge of a caretaker government, she has to appease all the various factions pulling at her while trying to hold them together. At one point she exclaims “I’m a politician, not a soldier!” as she retreats behind her office door. Yet, in a later scene, she surveys her military advisors and intelligence officers and informs them when the attack will be and where . She is not only an astute strategist; she knows when to capitulate and when to strike at Israel’s enemies.
When Six-Day War hero and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) begins to crack under the pressure of dealing with the loss of so many of his men, she is disappointed in him like any Jewish mother. Yet she is firm with him. “Go home. Wash your face…and snap out of it!” she disapproves.
The most tender scenes are those emotional moments she shares at the hospital and in her residence with her personal assistant Lou Kaddar, played exquisitely by French comedienne and actress Camille Cottin. There were simple things like bathing that were quite impossible for the septuagenarian to do by herself and the two shared an uncommon bond. Cottin’s portrayal of Kaddar is remarkable. She understands the pressure the prime minister is under politically and more than anyone appreciates the challenge to her fragile health.
As Henry Kissinger, Liev Schreiber is a forceful counterpart to Mirren as the crisis plays out.
“Madame Prime Minister, in terms of our work together, I think it’s important you remember that first, I am an American; second, I am Secretary of State; and third, I am a Jew,” he tells her to set the record straight.
Without missing a beat, Meir’s answer is “You forget in Israel we read from right to left.”
The broader implications of a worldwide conflict are not lost on Kissinger, who informs the prime minister that the Soviet Union is poised to dispatch 11 air divisions should a diplomatic solution not be achieved.
Resolute, she will not yield. “If we have to, we will fight alone,” she replies in a charged scene later. “Side with me or I will create an army of orphans and widows. I will slaughter them all. Please think about it, Mr. Secretary.” As she replaces the phone’s handset into its cradle, we have little doubt that she will do as she says.
Nattiv weaves actual archival footage of war coverage into the film. As Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy plays out, the real Golda Meir in grainy black and white footage visits the Israeli troops who have surrounded the Egyptian Third Army. She has tea with her troops as she gives them what in her mind is a pep talk.
She gives the appearance of a gentile grandmother. But we know there are larger issues at play and, depending on how things are resolved, the very survival of the State of Israel is at hand. Meir insists on direct talks with Anwar Sadat’s government and that Egypt must recognize Israel. On that point she will not yield.
The film also employs audio clips of soldiers in the field updating commanders in real time and in Hebrew with English subitles. Coupled with the dire faces in the war room, the effect is often chilling and thrilling. Early in the war, the Israelis suffer major losses and we see it expressed in the anguished faces of the Israelis. Later, as we see advancing enemy tanks quite literally blown apart on the dessert plains there is relief as the Israelis turn the tide, but there is still sorrow there. Mirren keeps Golda grounded as she remarks that both (Hafez Al) Assad and (Anwar) Sadat care not for their soldiers.
Mirren’s exacting makeup and the ever-present smoke from her constantly lit cigarettes practically fills each frame. Nattiv’s casting her in this role seems brilliant and prescient on his part.
Like the symbolic device of the birds, Nattiv uses the lingering trails of smoke to indicate Golda Meir’s indomitable spirit and presence in the world. Mirren’s work is a marvel and the cast of supporting actors is also splendid. But make no mistake about it. This is Helen Mirren’s movie and despite what they may portend or what the director intended, this movie is definitely not for the birds.
“Golda” (PG-13) is being seen in a sold-out private screening at a local theater two days before its release on August 25.