‘Golda’: When a Leader Prefers Not to Choose

Films offers an even-handed review of Golda Meir

6 mins read

(Israel/Germany, 88 min.)
Dir. Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir, Shani Rozanes

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir makes two especially memorable comments in the archival excerpts of Golda. She says that she barely slept while holding the top office from 1969-1974. Meir reveals that these sleepless nights were of her own choosing. Worried that she might miss some major news while resting, she advised her underlings to call her intermittently throughout the night. One can only wonder what the course of history might have been had the late Meir been well rested while decided the fate of the world.

The second comment (among many) worth noting is Meir’s argument, “Every Arab in the world has a choice. A Jew has no choice.” Choices, or lack thereof, are an underlying conflict in this portrait of Meir.

These confessions of self-directed fatigue and perceived powerlessness illustrate how Meir rarely knew peace. Golda, the new film by Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir, and Shani Rozanes, bravely suggests that Meir’s restlessness was of her own choosing. This argument becomes especially damaging as the film observes that the most consequential choice of Meir’s tenure was to do nothing about the Israel/Palestine divide.

Bornstein and Nir, who previously delivered #uploading_holocaust, and Rozanes (a journalist making her doc debut) focus on the years in which Meir held top office. Some excerpts from her life before and after being Prime Minister, like her upbringing in America, fill in the rest. The film combs through an extensive range of archival materials to consider the legacy of Israeli’s first and only female Prime Minister. Some people consider Meir the “queen of the Jewish people” while others deem her a hard-nosed racist whose damaging politics have consequences that continue to this day. Golda makes a fair and balanced argument for both perspectives. Similarly, Golda explores the barriers that Meir broke as a lone woman in power within a male-dominated system without using its feminist lens to rationalize or overlook the most problematic aspects of her career. The filmmakers’ effort to afford a balanced portrait is evident in new contemporary interviews with Meir’s surviving colleagues and family members that complement the archival footage.

The delivery is admittedly dry as Golda flies through the main points in a significant career and an extremely complicated socio-political backdrop. All the bases of Meir’s years are covered—her unexpected popularity in the USA, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and the Mossad’s retaliation, the growing tension and escalating violence between Jews and Arabs, and the Yom Kippur War—in a few minutes each. Many episodes from Meir’s career, moreover, appear framed within discussions of her anti-Arab racism that further illuminate her complacency in the quest for peace between Israeli and Palestine, but the cursory approach to history risks leaving viewers lost unless they do their homework beforehand. These excerpts nevertheless challenge a saintly portrait of Meir, since her refusal to separate the personal from the political is obvious throughout.

Most revealing is an archival reel from the spring of 1978. The footage, revealed here for the first time, observes Meir in candid conversation with two journalists in an exchange that followed an interview for Israeli television. The interviewers and Meir comment frequently that the conversation isn’t going to air, and it’s unclear if Meir knew the cameras and microphones were still recording. It’s a relief that they were, though, since this unfiltered footage offers the most illuminating material in the film.

Meir’s comments, made mere months before her death, capture the contradictions of a controversial figure. She’s blunt, frank, and honest—traits few people can navigate successfully while working towards re-election. But as she smokes cigarette after cigarette and waves her hands throughout the post-interview conversation, she’s often on the defensive. She is not one to admit she made a mistake as she rationalizes her decisions and their consequences.

Golda avoids hagiography as it intersperses snippets of this smoky interview throughout its overview of Meir’s legacy. It provides valuable context for Meir’s personal views and it suggests that her heart wasn’t really in the job enough to have the courage to pursue peace in a situation that needed it. The film makes clear that the choice was there and her failure to lead complicated matters for future leaders with the courage to choose. While leaving something to be desired in terms of capturing the drama in which Meir operated daily, Golda often delivers as a character study with consequences that resonate today.

Golda opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Jan. 3.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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