Golda Meir was many things — modern Israel’s first and only female head of government and a wartime prime minister. And she now she's provided the vehicle for Helen Mirren to try to earn some more acting awards.
The great English actor dons prosthetics and an air of sourness in “Golda” to portray Meir facing two tragedies by fire — leading Israel's counterattack in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war while also undergoing cancer treatment.
The war’s outcome laid the groundwork for a peace agreement, but Israel suffered heavy losses and Meir was criticized for the government’s lack of preparation and slowness to act on intelligence indicating an attack was imminent. She resigned the following year.
Director Guy Nattiv and writer Nicholas Martin don't have much to say about Meir's childhood or early adulthood in “Golda.” We find her very late in life, with terrible decisions to make as Israel is attacked on the holy day of Yom Kippur from two sides. This movie is mostly a snapshot of a few demanding weeks.
The filmmakers have seized on one recurring — and eventually irritating — image: smoke. Meir was a chain-smoker and that has given them license to have her lighting up at every turn; the crack of metal lighters and burning of paper seem to end every scene. There is even a half-hearted attempt to combine her cigarette smoke with artillery fire from the front lines, a dubious effort at best.
It's not clear why smoking is so important to the filmmakers. Perhaps it's to show Meir's stubbornness or single-mindedness or stress release — she even smokes on the hospital table while enduring treatment for lymphoma — but it just becomes a filmmaking crutch, like real nicotine.
Mirren — following in the sturdy, lace-up work shoes of previous Meir actors like Anne Bancroft, Judy Davis and Tovah Feldshuh — does an admirable job lurching from war meeting to war meeting and tossing off great lines like: “All political careers end in failure” and “I will not be taken alive.” (Mirren has so far largely avoided the criticism that Bradley Cooper has faced for playing Leonard Bernstein, though they are both non-Jews using prosthetics.)
But the script gives Mirren little insight into what is going on inside Meir. We watch her diligently note each soldier and equipment loss in a little notebook and have panic attacks, yet what the war means to her is lost in prosthetics, the clicking of typewriters and wisps of smoke.
Another ham-fisted way the filmmakers try to instill empathy in their Meir is, bizarrely, through one of the stenographers whose son is fighting in the Suez Canal. While the men blithely natter on about troop movements and casualties, Meir will glance at the stenographer, sadly.
Liev Schreiber is very good as an amused Henry Kissinger — her few scenes with him give a welcome jolt to the movie — and Camille Cottin is very strong as Meir's patient aide, washing her back and administering soup and medicine.
“Golda” has seeds of interesting insights, like the suggestion that she was betrayed by some of the men she relied on during the war and yet protected them. Or how false intelligence is nothing new when it comes to Middle Eastern conflicts. Or how female leaders inevitably face catch-22s. But none of these is taken.
There is one moment that punctures Mirren’s dour portrayal, and it comes at the very end. The credits feature footage of the real Golda Meir, smiling and laughing with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. Here, finally, is the complex, multidimensional woman Mirren had been chasing but failed to land.
“Golda,” a Bleecker Street release that is in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 for “thematic material and pervasive smoking.” Running time: 100 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits