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War and Peace

The Strange Feminism of Golda

The biopic starring Helen Mirren shies away from the moral implications of Golda Meir’s decisions.

Courtesy of Sean Gleason/Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures
Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in the biopic “Golda”

There’s a powerful and timely political message running through Golda, the new historical drama starring Helen Mirren as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and that message is this: Smoking kills. You may have been under the impression that inhaling carcinogens constantly for years makes you look cool while helping to relieve stress and anxiety—benefits that anyone, but perhaps especially a national leader during wartime, might find appealing. But it turns out that regular tobacco consumption can increase the risk of developing lymphoma, the cancer that killed Meir in 1978 at age 80, by as much as 45 percent. Getting there is no fun either: You can expect hair loss, bloody coughing, and myriad other unpleasantness, all of which Meir apparently experienced while she was directing Israel’s counteroffensives against Egypt and Syria. So if you are a daily smoker, consider quitting, or you might spend your final days alone on a respirator in a hospital bed as your world-historical legacy plays out on TV, solemnly soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire.”

Scenes of Meir smoking, ignoring the advice of her doctors and her personal aide to quit smoking, and suffering the ruinous consequences of smoking take up practically all of Golda’s 100-minute running time, ensuring that this message won’t be lost on anyone. By contrast, the word “Palestinians” comes up exactly once, in a brief montage at the beginning laying out the bare facts of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and 1967 victory in the Six-Day War. The existence of a Palestinian refugee problem is alluded to almost apologetically, no doubt in the hopes that this will satisfy critics of Israel. There is no explicit reference to the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that marked Israel’s founding, or to the subsequent military occupation of internationally recognized Palestinian territories, which had been going on for six years at the time of the 1973 war and by now has gone on for 56 years, with no end in sight.

“There was no such thing as Palestinians,” Meir herself said in an infamous 1969 interview, and Golda makes the most perfunctory possible effort to correct her. If, like me, you were taught from a young age to understand Israel as a small, scrappy democracy surrounded by hostile Arab states that want to destroy it for no apparent reason, Golda is not going to do much to complicate that narrative.

I went into Golda with rock-bottom expectations, low enough that the film may have actually exceeded them. The performances are solid—Mirren, in particular, is remarkably human under layers of prosthetics—and director Guy Nattiv has crafted a competent little historical thriller that walks us efficiently through the beats of a major geopolitical crisis. If Golda spends zero time on the Palestinians, it spends only a bit more time than that on its protagonist’s formative traumas (antisemitism in the czarist Ukraine of her early childhood, which she recounts to win a political argument) and none whatsoever on her youth in Milwaukee, her young adulthood on a kibbutz in Mandatory Palestine, or her rise to political power in the male-dominated founding generation of the State of Israel.

Golda is not really a biopic; it keeps a tight focus on the Yom Kippur War, tracking the high-level decision-making day by day. The film uses a government hearing Meir was subjected to the following year as a frame for understanding why she made or failed to make certain strategic calls. The Agranat Commission hearing is a narrative device not unlike the one Christopher Nolan uses in the far more interesting Oppenheimer, but whereas Nolan is trying to show how the creator of the atomic bomb was subsequently brought down by his enemies in government, the stakes for Meir turn out to be considerably lower. Between the war and the cancer, the hearing is just a minor nuisance.

Of all the Israeli wars one might revisit in this format, 1973 could be the most dramatically rich choice. If 1948 and 1967 were unambiguous triumphs for Israel, 1973 was at best a draw, and could plausibly be spun as an Egyptian victory. This earned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat the domestic political capital he needed to spend in order to recognize the Jewish state and sign a formal peace treaty at Camp David five years later, which Meir would live just long enough to see. Israel’s political leadership was sufficiently shaken by the joint Egyptian and Syrian attacks on the holiest day of the Jewish year that Meir’s legacy remains controversial in Israel decades later; the decision by Meir and her military advisers not to strike first may have increased the Israeli death toll by hundreds. The Israelis faced an existential threat, and Meir turned to the United States for deliverance—and specifically to Henry Kissinger, who, in the final year of Richard Nixon’s doomed presidency, retained the global diplomatic clout to negotiate a cease-fire that both sides could respect.

To the extent Golda resists dull hagiography, it does so because Nattiv is an Israeli who clearly admires Meir but also understands that many of his countrymen are still angry at her: for failing to strike first; for green-lighting Ariel Sharon’s ill-considered push across the Suez Canal that, as she puts it, “created an army of widows and orphans”; and for then agreeing to Kissinger’s cease-fire instead of pressing ahead to Cairo, damn the consequences, as many Israeli hawks would have preferred. The film is effective at capturing Israel as a traumatized nation, in which Holocaust survivors are omnipresent and young men are eager to be heroes even when the political circumstances call for something less than heroic. Beyond being sickly and irritable, the Meir we get to know has to navigate between channeling the traumas of her electorate and making the rational choices that will best serve them. It’s an impossible balancing act, and it inevitably reveals human flaws.

On the other hand, Meir is played by Helen Mirren. Of course we’re supposed to root for her! And the casting of Mirren—who, like Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer and Bradley Cooper in the forthcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic, Maestro, is yet another example of a famous gentile playing a famous Jew—may provide a clue as to why Golda exists at all. In 2006, Mirren starred as Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, and in 2019, she portrayed the titular Russian empress in the entertaining but inconsequential HBO miniseries Catherine the Great. Elizabeth ruled the British Commonwealth as an all-but-powerless figurehead, and Catherine’s reign was long enough ago that it didn’t occur to critics to read any geopolitical subtext into the series (though it’s hard to imagine it getting made since Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, which is essentially an attempt to reconquer the lands Catherine first brought under Russian rule). Four years ago, Catherine the Great was received as simply a raunchy costume drama starring the beloved and charismatic Mirren as one of history’s best-known women leaders, who was “great” in the morally neutral sense of having accomplished vast and terrible things.

I suspect this is also why Mirren wanted to play Meir. Though Golda mercifully avoids on-the-nose dialogue to this effect, this is a movie about a tough and ruthless woman presiding over an all-male Cabinet engaged in the traditionally male fields of politics and warfare. The contemporary American audience for a movie about the Yom Kippur War, or about Israel in general, is limited, but there are plenty of people who are still upset that we never got to see Hillary Clinton at the apex of American Empire. For them, seeing Mirren in the role of Catherine the Great or Golda Meir might serve as a kind of wish fulfillment: proof that women are just as capable as men of ordering (mostly) men into battle, regardless of why the battle is happening or what the underlying political stakes are. The common term for this is “girlboss feminism,” and if nothing else, Meir—the fourth elected female leader of any country, and the first in Israel—makes for a plausible girlboss.

Golda’s indifference to the deeper moral implications of politics extends to the casting of the reliably likable Liev Schreiber as Kissinger; to prepare for the role, Schreiber actually met with the century-old diplomat in his apartment and incorporated his recollections into the script. It’s an understated performance—Kissinger as soft-spoken German-Jewish academic turned diplomat whose calm and rational foreign policy realism makes for a logical foil to Meir’s hard-edged, straight-from-the-shtetl, fighting Zionism. “I’m an American first, secretary of state second, and a Jew third,” he tells Meir over borscht in her modest apartment, gently reminding her that appeals to common peoplehood will only get her so far with him (her oh-so-clever rejoinder, that Israelis read from right to left, was related to Schreiber by Kissinger).

If you’re a liberal American Jew watching this, Kissinger is your stand-in here, pushing for Meir to make peace even though she leads a nation primed for endless war. In the narrow context of the film, this is accurate; Kissinger really did have to twist the Israelis’ arms to make peace, and it was probably for the best that he did. The script has Meir describe Kissinger as single-mindedly obsessed with checking the Soviet Union, which backed the Syrians and Egyptians in the war, and certainly Cold War realpolitik was central to Kissinger’s thinking, as was his countervailing and valid concern that the Gulf monarchies would spike the price of oil to punish the U.S. for supporting Israel. But we are talking about a man who the previous month had conspired with a right-wing junta to overthrow Chile’s elected left-wing leader and who, over the previous several years, had played an instrumental role in everything from the carpet-bombing of Cambodia to the genocide in Bangladesh. I’m not saying Golda needed to cover any of that, only that some hint of the kind of monster we’re dealing with would have made for a more interesting performance.

It also might have hinted at what the long-term legacy of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire and the subsequent Camp David Accords has proved to be. It’s true that Israel has never since faced the kind of conventional military threat it confronted in 1973, but the price of peace has been borne above all by the Palestinians, who have endured decades of statelessness, dispossession, and periodic airstrikes while Washington showers military aid on both their Israeli occupiers and a series of autocrats in neighboring Egypt. It’s understandable why Israelis like Nattiv, who was born the same year Golda takes place, are grateful for this legacy; for them, it has meant growing up in a safer, more prosperous, less isolated country, and even having the freedom to visit the pyramids. But that freedom is premised on what can fairly be termed an apartheid regime—one that has only become more entrenched with each passing year since the accords.

Golda is dedicated to the memory of all the men and women who fought in the Yom Kippur War, a phrasing that implicitly acknowledges the humanity of the Egyptian and Syrian soldiers (who between them took several times as many casualties as the Israelis) and situates Nattiv on the liberal end of the Israeli political spectrum. In an interview with Deadline, responding to critics of the film’s de-emphasis on Palestinians, he said, “No-one was speaking about the Palestinians while we were fighting the Egyptians.” He added that if he’d had a whole miniseries to explore Meir’s life, he’d have included her feelings about the Palestinians—and, moreover, that he has Palestinian friends and even uses the word “Nakba” himself. But if Nattiv acknowledges the injustice of the occupation in interviews, why can’t he find any room to do so in the film?

The answer seems to be that he is more interested in rescuing the dignity of Israel’s founding generation in the context of its current political crisis. Nattiv has participated in the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform, which is rapidly transforming Israel into an illiberal democracy along the lines of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. “We miss leaders like Golda, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin that took responsibility and didn’t point fingers,” he told Deadline, drawing an obvious contrast with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is a corrupt thug, but his violent offenses against the Palestinians are on a continuum with those of his more left-leaning predecessors from Israel’s founding generation. Can a country that claims the right to impose indefinite military rule over millions of people on the basis of their ethnicity really call itself a democracy? Far too many of the Israelis protesting Netanyahu right now have been passive at best in the face of the occupation and have only turned out to protest when their own rights have come under direct threat. Golda didn’t have to be centrally concerned with the Palestinian question—the Yom Kippur War was a dramatic historical episode, Meir was a major historical figure, and filmmakers should have the right to choose their subject matter—but it ought to have something meaningful to say about the nature of the Zionist project to the younger generation of American Jews, who are increasingly disenchanted with Israel and disinclined to empathize with the Israeli perspective. Failing that, it may at least persuade some of them to switch to vapes.