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An Important Israeli Film's Large Implications

On counter-terrorism at the movies

Dror Moreh Prod/Les Films du Poisson/Cinephil

There is a new shot in the movies and it deserves attention. In truth, it has been around for some time, but meaning can take a while to sink in. The first time I felt its possibility was in the late ’50s, reading Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park. The narrator of that novel is Sergius O’Shaughnessy, who has been a first lieutenant in the Air Force. Stationed in Tokyo, he performed over Korea. “Sometimes on tactical missions we would lay fire bombs into Oriental villages. I did not like that particularly, but I would be busy with technique, and I would dive my plane and drop the jellied gasoline into my part of the pattern. I hardly thought of it any other way. From the air, a city in flames is not a bad sight.”

That’s the image, and the detachment it fosters. Not being there, at ground zero, is an important part of the technology. There were newsreel shots like that of Hiroshima and the bomb tests in the New Mexico desert. There’s a brilliant and beautiful moment in Apocalypse Now when the bright green jungle blooms orange, black, white, and crimson when a line of napalm bombs strike. But those were the old days, requiring planes and pilots. The really new shot is seductively automatic. A surveillance point of view hovers far above the ground. It is taken from a satellite. It tracks the beetle movements of a truck or some other vehicle. Then suddenly the ground flowers with explosion. This is so swift one’s first impression is that the ground itself has belched. But it’s a drone that did it, and I daresay it was entirely controlled by computers. Not a bad sight at thirty thousand feet or back at base camp. Remember the picture of an operations room filled with our leaders, watching some screen? Best glimpse of a movie audience in years.

That shot has been becoming more frequent. It was in Syriana, as I remember. It was in "Homeland," although that was at ground level, but all at once the village where Brody was being held changed its physical nature. There is a similar alteration in Zero Dark Thirty, and it is a shot—rough, black and white, imperfect—that comes early on in The Gatekeepers, an arresting and audacious new documentary by Dror Moreh.

The gatekeepers are six men who, since the early 1980s, held the position of head of Shin Bet. That is not Mossad; it is a security agency that is more secret, its membership less known. But it has been instrumental in defending Israel against all threats (especially terrorism) and in identifying the threats early enough so that it may have seemed as if Shin Bet was being aggressive in preventing them. Shin Bet has never messed around or (until late in its history) taken legal advice. But the film says something profound about Israel’s freedoms that these six men were able to speak without restriction, and that the film opened in Israel in January stunning audiences while eliciting some outrage on the right. It’s as if six directors of the CIA turned up in a documentary telling what they had done in office and regretting how those tactics had helped to deplete the honor of the United States.

Courtesy of Avner Shahaf/Avraham Shalom/Sony Pictures Classics

They are old men; or older than they’d like to be. They are talking heads seen in medium shots. They wear open-necked shirts and they look like seasoned, sun-tanned soldiers, by which I mean they look tough. But they are calm and reasonable, they do not boast or evade. They do not break down or turn into raging tyrants. They did a job and they believed in it. One looks like a grandfather, a little stooped, bespectacled, and wearing suspenders. He may be the toughest of the lot and there is no question but that these guys did tough and even bad things, like torture and ordering in drones. And now, individually and as a group, they have reached a point where they need to speak out against the very toughness they were hired for and some of the policies of their country.

These six guys were good at their job. They crushed plots and eliminated terrorists, but every success generated more terrorists. Over the years, they had failures, too: Shin Bet had some culpability in not preventing the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and one leader resigned because of that. But nothing in The Gatekeepers detracts from the widespread faith that the Israeli army and its security agencies are the best in the world. Still, these six are not just weary, but disillusioned. As one of them concludes, repeating an old chestnut but giving it new force, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Something has to change in attitude and strategy if Israel is to avert the risk of moral catastrophe.

Most documentaries are belated or incidental. The new film, West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg, treats a miscarriage of justice from 1993, and it has trouble coming up with relevant footage. A film such as Searching for Sugar Man tries to find out what became of a recording star out of sight since the 1970s. It is interesting and warm, but not the kind of contribution we need in documentary where the challenge to make up for our ailing news coverage on television is so pressing. The Gatekeepers describes recent history, but it is a contribution to the present dilemma simply because it calls upon the most unlikely people to define it and to urge greater effort.

The Gatekeepers uses the overhead tracking and blasting shot, and Moreh says it was done on the computer—for dramatic point. Fair enough, but then consider the possibility that the nature of a shot or the cinematic language has an eventual impact on how we think. Thus the close-up was a way of focusing on the validity of individual emotions. Close-ups say that this person is important and beautiful; whereas most people in life are neither. Similarly, the cut started us seeing connections between disparate things. It is in our nature now as a rhetorical and cognitive device that can tidy up chaos. Every kind of shot can be assessed in that way, just as every sentence and grammatical structure has affected the way we breathe and respond to the world.

Courtesy of Avner Shahaf/Yaakov Peri/Sony Pictures Classics

So the distancing and rather cold-blooded view of a sanitized kill is a way of telling us how to think. It is also the dominant pulse of combat video games where the player holds a trigger device and racks up his score by shooting at human targets, albeit anonymous and nearly faceless figures. In video games no one gets hurt, but the habit of firing a trigger dissociated from any sense of damage or pain seems not just suggestive, but probably more influential and dangerous than the sheer quantity of guns in our society.

There is another triggering device that has gone deep into our beings, and I’m using it at this moment. If I make a mistake in typing, or if I don’t like something I have written, I can press “delete.” We all do it all the time, and take it for granted that the errors, the bad stuff, go away. I do it with the forefinger of my right hand, the pointing finger, and maybe the most egotistical finger—isn’t that finger more assertively you than your little finger? This may seem to have wandered away from film criticism, but the elements of film language are as crucial to us as those of verbal language. The wipe-out shot, the explosion shot, the kill shot—these are increasingly apparent in games we play and in our ordinary discourse. They carry with them the notion that erasure or deletion is painless and trouble-free. That’s something Mailer was getting at when he had his character say, “From the air, a city in flames is not a bad sight.”

In Zero Dark Thirty, it isn’t the torture that is most in need of discussion (though it is an issue). It is the way the mission is rendered on film as a task or a game that a good player can pull off. When the seals come to attack Osama bin Laden’s compound, they put on night-vision goggles that cast a green glow on what they see. It’s one thing to observe that from a neutral point of view, and another to make the camera wear this green-cast vision. The nervous energy of the film sides with the seals, and that subjectivity overrides many sources of possible disquiet with the mission. It is the film’s blunt satisfaction with “mission accomplished” that is so limiting. Al Qaeda is fanatical, totalitarian, very dangerous, and hardly reachable, but the sharp point of the spear has a shaft of ordinary Arab belief. Somehow that sentiment has to be addressed politically. There is a powerful moment in The Gatekeepers when Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011, candidly remarks that for the Palestinians he is himself a terrorist. That is not relativism but realism, and the welcome sign of an empathetic imagination. 

Courtesy of Avner Shahaf/Yuval Diskin/Sony Pictures Classics

In fact, the raid to delete bin Laden was old-fashioned. It wanted to believe in the skill and courage of soldiers, when arguably a drone strike would have been simpler. That might have caused collateral damage, but we have accepted that risk in other situations. For the moment, our side has the drone technology and can take advantage of it. But as it spreads everyone will be a potential target. In London in 1944–1945 as the “doodlebugs” (the V1 and V2 bombs) began to strike, there was a cheerful code: if you hear the bomb coming, you’re OK. If you don’t hear it, you’re dead.