"The Gatekeepers," a startling exposé of Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, delivers an unequivocal indictment. The handful of former Shin Bet heads who deliver candid accounts of their reasoning for various destructive assaults in the constant horn-locking with their Palestinian neighbors initially come across as unsympathetic war-mongerers. However, director Dror Moreh allows the movie to exclusively unfold through their voices, humanizing them to the point where their logic and humanity fall into distinct categories. For every shocking justification of murder, there's another moment where they confess frustration and regret, resulting in a refreshingly even-handed portrait.
As an introductory title card positions the Shin Bet interviews as an exceedingly rare opportunity to hear about the inner workings of Israeli military action, "The Gatekeepers" settles into a grim account of the country's history in the wake of the 1967 war. Early on, it's clear that the organization's function was derailed by its drive to engage the Palestinians in an antagonistic struggle. "Luckily for us, terrorism increased," admits one former Shin Bet head with the eerie semblance of a chuckle. Another puts it bluntly: "We wanted security and got more terrorism."
Among the interview subjects, Yuval Diskin, the head of the organization until 2011, brings the freshest memories of the experience and thus the most unsettling clarity to the discussion. "Politicians prefer binary options," he says, explaining the rash of bombings intended for terrorist subjects that often leave countless innocents dead. Those with greater distance from the job come across as unsettlingly pragmatic about the task at hand. "With terrorism, there are no morals," says Carmi Gillon, a Shin Bet leader in the mid-nineties. But even he assails the organization for acts of war that use terrorism as an excuse to assert power over a weaker minority.
A feature-length argument, "The Gatekeepers" reaches a turning point by spending an extensive period recounting the national ire over the Oslo Accords and eventual assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. Following the dissolution of a dialogue with Yasser Arafat, Shin Bet was given no precise mandate to shift its knee-jerk impulses. Moreh finds the organization trapped in a mortifying quagmire: Retaliate or face retaliation. While keeping the country safe, they also further the notion that wartime engagement is the only continuing solution to conflict in the Middle East.
As "The Gatekeepers" steadily works its way into modern times, Moreh cuts between shocking POV shots of spyplanes taking out unsuspecting vehicles and homes; by the time the images of suicide bombings appear onscreen, the scale of death on both sides comes across as equally grotesque permanence. The Shin Bet leaders are capable of justifying their job while decrying the ethical conundrums it constantly raises. Avraham Shalom, the Shin Bet head in the 1980s, puts it best: "When you retire, you become a bit of leftist."
Since none of the subjects currently hold office (Yoram Cohen, not in the film, currently runs Shin Bet) allows them the capacity to assail the institution without falling back on political rhetoric. Each of them has the capacity to recall a precise moment in Israel's history by way of its belligerent stances, striking a tone that will have some viewers nodding their heads even as others are outraged.
Because it never stretches beyond its small group of interviewees, "The Gatekeepers" retains a closeness with its subjects that's more conversational than purely journalistic. Moreh uses his subjects to express a contradiction at the root of all military processes. Even if they're trapped by their testimonies, they never deliver an alternative. "The Gatekeepers" is thus both a critical investigation into misguided battlefield tactics and a reluctant acknowledgement of occupational hazards at their ugliest.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics has picked up "The Gatekeepers" and will likely campaign for it to receive an Oscar nomination. The controversial subject matter is bound to generate a dialogue that will help the film in limited release; meanwhile, it has premiered at Telluride and next stops in Toronto and New York, where its profile is bound to expand.