Golda lacks compelling drama despite Helen Mirren's performance
Historical biopics can be tricky to pull off, as filmmakers have to make them accurate enough to be believable but entertaining enough for moviegoers to sit through what is essentially a history lesson. And when telling a story about relatively niche person or time, the assignment can that much more difficult.
That’s the issue facing Golda, which chronicles a month in the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) as she did her best to handle the fallout of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The war, started by a coalition of Arab States led by Egypt and Syria, came 25 years after the creation of Israel, and – as continues in many respects to this day – was about land that Israel had claimed as its own.
The film is firmly on the side of Israel, as it only tells the story from the perspective of Meir and other Israeli government and military officials. Meir deals with a lot during that period, including a lack of respect from the mostly-male government (she’s referred to as a “caretaker prime minister”), mounting casualties from the war, and her own ill health, exacerbated by her heavy smoking.
Directed by Guy Nattiv and written by Nicholas Martin, the film starts with flashes of news about Israel’s creation and its various wars in the mid-20th century, setting the scene for non-history buffs. The film – and Meir's assistant, Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottin) – rarely leave her side, following her through her official duties, inside a hospital for cancer treatments, and even into her bedroom as she agonizes over the war and the losses Israel is sustaining.
The filmmakers do their best to impart the historical significance of the war itself and how it affected the higher-ups who oversaw it, but there’s something missing from the drama. Perhaps it’s because the war is only “seen” through distraught radio calls from the front lines and grainy video footage, but seeing Meir and others react to the seemingly non-stop barrage of bad news isn’t as compelling as the filmmakers seem to think it is.
There is also the relevant impact of the people playing real figures. Mirren wears heavy makeup to look like Meir, including a bigger nose, jowls, and wrinkles, but the fact that she herself is not Jewish has become a point of contention. Liev Schreiber, who plays U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, is Jewish, but, at 6’ 3”, he towers over the relatively small Kissinger. The film mixes in real footage of Meir and Kissinger, so it’s all too easy to compare and contrast how well each actor favors their real counterpart.
Mirren is, of course, a phenomenal Oscar-winning actor, so her performance is the most interesting part of the film. Though the scenes she’s called upon to play sometimes turn maudlin, she tends to rise above that, still making an emotional impact. Schreiber only has a few scenes, but his presence is welcome. Cottin, whose profile has been growing in recent years, puts in another nice role.
You probably have to have more than a passing interest in Israeli history to fully understand everything going on in Golda. Meir was – and remains – Israel’s only female prime minister, and even though the film is intensely focused on her, she is still a bit of an enigma by the time it’s finished.
Golda is now playing in theaters.