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‘Golda’ Review: Helen Mirren’s Golda Meir Biopic Is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

Berlin: Mirren is unsurprisingly terrific, but Guy Nattiv’s film is frustratingly superficial.

Helen Mirren in "Golda"

Helen Mirren in “Golda”

©Jasper Wolf

Defending her conduct during the Yom Kippur War before a panel of graying men, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) takes the half-smoked cigarette already dangling from her lips and, instinctually but not all absentmindedly, uses it to light another. This idiosyncratic character beat arrives early in Guy Nattiv’s ho-hum biopic, and speaks volumes about story and subject, telling all you need to know about Meir the person and “Golda” the film.

That Golda’s a smoker should come as no shock; nearly everyone is in this period accurate window into 1973. What sets the Prime Minister apart is her doggedness – her clarity of purpose and tenacity of intent. This cancer-struck icon makes a point to light up each time she undergoes radiation treatment, smoking less for pleasure than in defiance of her own, not-too-distant end. That Mirren should seize on this tic should come with even less surprise, for what is a Marlboro if not an actor’s best friend, a reliable partner, a gift for idle hands, a way to punctuate a line, a scene, a read?

Which returns us to this pregnant puff and the film it presages. In theory a docudrama reliving the 1973 Yom Kippur War from the perch of power, “Golda” is, in practice, a compendium of actorly affects, a spotlight on a venerable performer offering them a stage on which to shine. Pushed and pulled between conflicting tonal and narrative approaches, Nattiv’s film finds its clearest identity as an awards bait corollary to a hacky stand-up bit: What if they made the whole plane out of the black box? What if they made the whole film out of the Oscar reel?

The result would look something like this. After a framing device finds Meir testifying before the Agranat Commission – a 1974 panel that investigated the intelligence failures that left the young state unprepared for the previous year’s war – we flashback to the morning of October 6 1973, when word of an impending assault reached the Prime Minister’s desk. To one side of Meir sits IDF chief of staff David Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi), and to the other, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger). Both offer conflicting advice, and if screenwriter Nicholas Martin’s dialogue hews close to the historical record, the visuals tell a markedly different story.

The fact actors Ashkenazi and Heuberger (and many others in supporting roles) are Israeli and Mirren is decidedly not has hardly been lost on irate commentators, though to see the dynamic play out onscreen really does resolve that tension. Because in the end, the film’s centrifugal force is Mirren, not Meir. You could certainly make a version of this story with (what some might deem) a more ethnically appropriate lead, but that film wouldn’t be “Golda.” Indeed, the attraction here is to see an actor transform, to search for a familiar face under a mask of make-up, finding comfort in their unchanged eyes.

In other words, we want to see movie stars in dress-up, and on that front, “Golda” delivers. And if following that mandate lends this biopic a herky-jerk quality — cycling dissonant tones in order to give the star a variety of notes to play — the approach has undeniable merit from scene to scene.

As the war begins, the Prime Minister and her top advisors head into bunker mode, watching the Israeli forces take catastrophic losses as a sense of existential panic grows ever more acute. There is a version of this film that fully tracks this paradox of power – the sad truth that the Rooms Where It Happens tend to be drab and banal and oh so far from the fields where victory might be snatched from the jaws of defeat. And hey, that film does exist within “Golda,” most notably in a standout sequence that finds the top brass listening to a failed offensive on radio waves, while utterly powerless to step in.

Of course, this war-in-real-time version must co-exist with a number of others, including those require a bit winking irony (“They’ll make you prime minister,” Meir tells a brash general who goes by Sharon), and those that seize upon another key attraction of the genre – to see how well-mediatized icons behave once the cameras turn off. Often mixing archival footage with staged recreations, Nattiv takes evident pleasure when delivering on that front.

That mix-and-match style veers dangerously into camp once Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pays Meir a visit. The scene begins with a flurry of archival reports, following the real figure from the Tel Aviv tarmac to the gates outside of Meir’s residence. When we cut to the inside – to where those live cameras couldn’t take us – in walks Liev Schreiber and out comes the borscht. Whereas earlier war cabinet scenes play out as austere as a daylong fast, the film gives in to the appeal of make-believe once its two most iconic characters find themselves behind closed doors.

“Madame Prime Minister,” Schreiber says in an oft-imitated monotone. “I am first the Secretary of State, and then an American, only then a Jew.” Turning on the bubbe charm as she force-feeds him some borscht, Meir responds: “You forget that in Israel, we read from right to left.” Not a bad line as far as shtick goes, but certainly one that sticks out when bookended by sequences as dry and severe as matzoh, and all the more given the project’s attempt to elide any thornier moral and political questions by sticking to a here-and-now, just-the-facts approach.

Ultimately, “Golda” holds three firm beliefs: That Meir is a leader to admire, that Mirren is an actress to adore, and that all interactions must be reverse engineered to fit this limited scope. It makes for a superficial biopic and blinkered bit of history, but does give the venerable performer a new accent to chew on and the chance to blow some smoke. It’s a good role in a film always less than the sum of its parts.

Rating: C-

“Golda” premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release it at a latter date.

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