1973, Israel is in a fight for its very existence. At the helm is a very tough little Wisconsin-raised woman named Golda Meir who will win the wars being waged by her neighbors, but tarnish her legacy in the process. Golda is the story of the 19 days that would be remembered as the Yom Kippur War. The lovely Helen Mirren (The Queen) hidden beneath a ton of prosthetics gives the role of the Prime Minister all she can, but despite a lot of harrowing battles raging, the film doesn’t ever really catch fire. It reminded me of Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, a slice of time with a major historical figure during a decisive military conflict without more context of the leader’s background. It left me needing to fill in a lot of backstory and felt that it ultimately gave short shrift to its title character.
The film begins with Meir and her military men discussing what is happening around them. The Egyptians to the south and the Syrians to the north are saber rattling, but no one thinks that war is imminent, that is until it suddenly is. They had listening devices that were supposed to warn them but for some reason they were not functioning. And so they are scrambling to defend their country on two fronts. The audience is thrust into the war rooms, with soldiers begging for help that cannot come, and arguments about what is the best course forward. And it seriously looks like the Israelis could lose. But with the help of the Americans and some great military strategy, they come out of it victorious.
While she is leading the country, Golda is also dying of cancer. She sneaks off to get radiation treatments in the midst of the war, though she never quits chain smoking from the first frame to the last. And despite being the Iron Lady at the helm, it is clear that the toll being paid by the young men in battle is crushing her, too. The scenes with Henry Kissinger (Liev Schrieber) are probably the most memorable as she maneuvers him into agreeing to lending American support to the cause. Other scenes with the generals and military men are a bit confusing at times as to who they are and what they are suggesting she do.
All in all it’s another good performance from a great actor in a film that misses the mark. It is certainly tense as the battles wage and the war room watches, but I’d put this one on the “wait until it’s streaming” list and meanwhile read up on Golda, her prior history, and her troubling legacy.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: The film is interesting as a geopolitical drama but I agree with Arty Chick– it just never catches fire. I’m reminded of The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher was far better than the film itself. Helen Mirren embodies Golda and brings a quiet humanity to the legendary figure whose name I’ve always been aware of, but whose backstory was (and to some extent remains) a mystery. I lived in Israel briefly as a young child in 1974 and have vague memories of the venerable Prime Minister Golda Meir, the mystique of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (who initially comes off as quite the wuss in this film), US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (played here by Liev Schreiber), waving my little American flag as President Nixon visited Israel… so the film certainly adds some fascinating context to what six-year-old me was blissfully unaware of. As we approach the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there is value in learning more about those intense 19 days in 1973, though I’m inclined to seek out a documentary. Helen Mirren gives the film its best shot at visibility and her performance is certainly awards-consideration worthy. The film itself just doesn’t rise to Mirren’s level of greatness. It’s fine for streaming but doesn’t have the heft to necessitate or encourage a big-screen theatrical outing.]