Golda (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

August 23, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Golda Poster

As a snapshot of 20th century history, Golda does its job. As something more eloquent and important, the film falls short of its goal. Although the title makes it sound like a bio-pic, Golda is actually a fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most significant periods of conflict in the Middle-East, the so-called “October War” (or “Yom Kippur War”) that occurred from October 6-25, 1973. Although Israeli Prime Minster Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) is the film’s central figure, the narrative is more about this abbreviated portion of her life rather than an all-encompassing summary of her accomplishments.

Golda begins in the days leading up to the surprise invasion by Egypt and Syria on October 6. Meir is presented with contradictory intelligence regarding a potential attack on two of the occupied territories – with Egypt targeting the Sinai Peninsula while Syria moves on the Golan Heights. After suffering catastrophic losses during the first week of the conflict, Israel turns the tide and encircles the Egyptian Third Army within roughly 60 miles of Cairo. A ceasefire goes into effect on October 25, officially ending the conflict.  Golda elucidates how the Prime Minister uses brinkmanship in her relationship with the United States (in the person of Henry Kissinger, played by Liev Schreiber) while relying on the tactics of her generals to regain control of the battlefield.

The film features two standout sequences. The first occurs in a war room where Meir and her top commanders are monitoring (via radio transmissions) the situation at the front. As thing start going badly, the camera holds Helen Mirren’s face as she hears the cries of pain and absorbs not only the human element of the battle but the tactical one as well. The second focuses on a tense conversation between Meir and Kissinger in which the former lays out the implications of a lack of U.S. support on the world stage, especially with the U.S.S.R. being aggressive in its pro-Arab interference.

If all of Golda was pitched on a similar level to those sequences, this would have been a remarkable film. Unfortunately, too much of the movie feels like a rote dramatization of the Wikipedia entry for “The Yom Kippur War” – mostly accurate but lacking in immediacy and dramatic power. There’s a sense that director Guy Nattiv may have been attempting to replicate what Roger Donaldson achieved in his 2000 Cuban Missile Crisis movie, Thirteen Days, wherein historical events became fuel for a taut political thriller. In this case, however, there isn’t enough tension to sustain the momentum.

Playing Golda Meir gives Helen Mirren another memorable famous face to add to her resume, although it’s unlikely any figure will surpass her interpretation of Elizabeth II in The Queen. Nevertheless, in part because of Mirren’s talent an in part because the use of makeup obscures her recognizable features, she is able to inhabit Meir. When it comes to screen interpretations of one of Israel’s most consequential leaders, she falls short of Ingrid Bergman, who portrayed Meir in the 1982 TV mini-series, A Woman Named Golda. (That was Bergman’s final role, and she filmed it while suffering from terminal cancer.) And, as solid a performance as Mirren gives, she is upstaged by Liev Schreiber’s Henry Kissinger, who emerges from the shadows to steal scenes.

In a pre-COVID world, a movie like Golda might have had a nice run in indie theaters but the production now seems too small for theatrical distribution. This is no Oppenheimer. It feels tailor-made for streaming and a little padding of the running time (a svelte 100 minutes) might have dampened the rushed feeling. For those with a particular interest in Meir, Israel, or 20th century Middle East history, there’s enough here to hold a viewer’s attention. But, as theatrical experiences go, this one underwhelms.

Golda (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

Director: Guy Nattiv
Cast: Helen Mirren, Rami Heuberger, Ohad Knoller, Liev Schreiber
Screenplay: Nicholas Martin
Cinematography: Jasper Wolf
Music: Dascha Dauenhauer
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2023-08-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Thematic Material)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1