Helen Mirren astounds as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in a tense dramatization of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where Egypt and Syria launched a massive surprise attack on Judaism’s holiest day. Golda follows the indomitable but aged and sick leader through a perilous fight for her country’s survival. She faced enemies at the gates with an iron will, fierce determination, and a towering presence that commanded authority. The film juxtaposes her debilitating cancer treatments with the intestinal fortitude to make life and death decisions under extraordinary circumstances.
Golda (Mirren) walks gingerly on swollen feet before sitting down at a table with an ashtray. She smokes heavily as members of the 1974 Agranat Commission nervously prepare to question her over government failures in the Yom Kippur War. Israel took heavy losses, and was caught off guard, but exacted lasting concessions from their Arab neighbors. Victory came at a significant cost. She must answer for her decisions.
The film flashes back to October 3, 1973. Golda is presented with startling military intelligence from her trusted advisors. Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan), head of the Mossad, has urgent news from a spy in Cairo. The Egyptians will invade at any moment. Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), Israel’s defense minister, confirms that Syrian fighter jets and tanks have also amassed.
The commanders argue that this could be a false alarm. Zvi’s agent had previously warned of an impending Arab attack months ago but was wrong. Golda realizes the entire country will be celebrating Yom Kippur. It would be the perfect time for an enemy strike, but Israel cannot shoot first. She splits the difference and raises some troops as a necessary precaution.
Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger
Egypt and Syria unleash their much larger armored forces. Another Arab-Israeli conflict had begun in earnest. But this wouldn’t be an easy Israeli victory like the Six-Day War of 1967. Zvi’s assessment of the Arab strategy was correct. Golda listens intently as her generals explain their counterattack and defense posture. Maps are unfurled as a critical response is needed. Golda dispatches Moshe to the front line to accurately gauge the situation. He leaves, but she has another important appointment.
Golda walks through the morgue of a Tel Aviv hospital. She smokes as her trusted assistant, Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottin), helps her into a gurney for radiation treatment. Golda lights another cigarette as the doctors warn her about bad habits. She’ll continue smoking and drinking black coffee. They return to the command center. The opening hours have proven disastrous. Moshe’s nerves are clearly evident as he updates the press. Golda knows her people are frightened. She makes two demands that are hurriedly met. Golda will immediately address Israel, and then speak to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber).
Israeli director Guy Nattiv (Strangers, Skin) places Golda in the center of a hurricane but never loses sight of her individual problems and ability to rise above them. Golda spends the film smoking on rooftops in worried contemplation, orchestrating the war, and suffering from lymphoma. She constantly updates a notebook with the latest casualties count.
Golda keeps a brave face to everyone except for Lou. She’s the only person who sees Golda in a frail condition. Scenes of her spitting blood and losing clumps of hair show the barbaric toll of disease. Lou’s trust as a dear friend, surrogate daughter, and invaluable aide was paramount to Golda’s spirit.
Golda held no false assumptions about the worst case scenario, and swears she will never be taken alive.
An Existential Threat to Israel
Nattiv chronicles the war with a helicopter view not entirely from Golda’s perspective. He intercuts archival footage, news reports, and battlefield audio with events in the bunker. We see Golda sifting through the fog of war as her generals bicker about the best course of action.
The larger geopolitical stakes between the US and Soviet Union also factored into the equation. Kissinger didn’t want the Cold War exploding. Golda had little concern for the puppet masters when Israel’s existence was threatened. But she understood that US weaponry and equipment was key to repelling the invaders and stopping future attempts.
Mirren portrays Golda as firm and measured, but absolutely ruthless when the need arises. She demanded and expected respect. Her cabinet stood until she sat down. Kissinger held her in a high regard. Golda was a woman on the world stage dominated by men. No one doubted her ability to make the tough decisions. She was unquestionably in charge and engendered unwavering loyalty. Footage of Golda on the front lines with cheering soldiers boosted morale. What they didn’t see was her physical struggle just to get on the plane.
Golda is well-acted, thoughtful in its approach, and briskly paced. It’s a personal story in a pivotal setting with a historic outcome. Opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict may color your interpretation of the film. Try to watch dispassionately and with an acceptance of its specific focus. Nattiv extols Golda as a hero who capably defended her country. The always brilliant Mirren gives the character heart, backbone, and nuance.
Golda is a production of Piccadilly Pictures, Big Entrance, Embankment Films, and Lipsync Productions. It will be released theatrically on August 25th from Bleecker Street.