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'Golda' depicts a key moment in Israeli history. Its director sees parallels to today

Helen Mirren, Rami Heuberger, Lior Ashkenazi and Dvir Benedek in Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures' <em>Golda</em>. The movie, which follows Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir through the 1973 Yom Kippur War, hits theaters Friday.
Sean Gleason
Helen Mirren, Rami Heuberger, Lior Ashkenazi and Dvir Benedek in Bleecker Street/ShivHans Pictures' Golda. The movie, which follows Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir through the 1973 Yom Kippur War, hits theaters Friday.

Updated August 25, 2023 at 4:10 PM ET

The movie Golda is a biopic of Golda Meir, Israel's first and only female prime minister. But it only covers a period of fewer than three weeks.

The film follows Meir — played by a nearly unrecognizable Helen Mirren — as she navigates the tense 19 days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The conflict resulted in heavy Israeli losses, widespread criticism of the government's perceived lack of preparedness and, ultimately, Meir's resignation.

"She said, 'It's on me and I'm resigning,'" says director Guy Nattiv. "Show me a politician that will do [that] today."

The film focuses on a pivotal historical moment and the pioneering figure who led the country through it, says Nattiv, who was born in Israel that very year.

And he says it's especially relevant today given what's happening in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government is taking steps to weaken the country's judicial system despite widespread protests. Yom Kippur War veterans (wearing t-shirts that say so) have been among those taking to the streets, he adds.

Nattiv says the film is about leaders "who couldn't see each other, couldn't see from one meter, couldn't see the front, couldn't see themselves, couldn't see what's going on."

"And that's exactly what's going on right now, 50 years later," he adds.

For example, he says Israel's leaders seem to be ignoring the danger posed by the fact that many reservists are refusing to serve (arguing, as he describes it, that they fight "for the kingdom, not the king).

He says the fact that Meir believed in the judicial system is one of the big differences between her and Netanyahu.

"She thought about the people. She didn't think about herself. That's why she took the blame," he explains. "She left with a great shame because she cared about those soldiers. Benjamin Netanyahu cares about only one person: himself."

The movie opens in theaters in the U.S. on Friday, though several thousand people saw it at the Jerusalem Film Festival last month. Nattiv — who was just the second Israeli director to win an Oscar back in 2019 — says the screening got a "very emotional" response.

He said viewers told him: "Thank you for clearing Golda's name, and using this film as a lesson to what's happening right now in Israel."

A portrait of a pioneer, with details from those who knew her

Nattiv describes Meir as a fascinating figure — "not an amazing soldier but an amazing [stateswoman], and that was the one thing that saved us."

Her family moved from modern-day Ukraine to the U.S. to escape antisemitic violence when she was a child.

She moved to Palestine before World War II, working with Jewish labor groups before entering local politics. After Israel became a state in 1948, Meir (who was one of the signers of its Declaration of Independence) worked her way up in the government, serving as a member of parliament, then labor minister and foreign minister.

Meir became Israel's fourth prime minister — and just the fourth woman elected the head of a government in the world — in 1969, after her predecessor died unexpectedly. By that point she was in her seventies and secretly undergoing treatment for lymphoma (she died of the disease in 1978).

The movie depicts Meir, famously a heavy smoker, smoking cigarettes during her cancer treatments.

Nattiv says that's one of many personal details that the filmmakers learned through consulting with some of the people who knew Meir best: her press secretary Meron Medzini and bodyguard Adam Snir.

"Everything that you see in this movie is true, based on these people and based on people that knew her," he adds. "She smoked basically 30 packets a day, drank 30 black [coffees] a day and did not really eat. She was killing herself in a way that the country was killing itself."

Nattiv attributes this to the stress of her job, as well past traumas — both from her upbringing in Ukraine and the fresh memory of Holocaust, which had happened only three decades earlier.

And he wants viewers to feel the way Meir did as she watched the war unfold from afar.

"I thought that because Golda couldn't go to the front, because she was an older lady and she was sick, I wanted to bring the war into the rooms, into [these] closed, claustrophobic rooms full of smoke," he says, adding that the movie includes real soundbites from the frontlines.

One area where the movie doesn't go into much detail, however, is the experience and treatment of Palestinians, apart from a segment showing some being thrown out of their villages.

Nattiv acknowledges he could have done more to show where Palestinians fit into the overall picture, but that Meir — who once said "there were no such thing as Palestinians" — could have done more for them, too.

Documents declassified earlier this summer suggest that the prime minister considered the possibility of the formation of a Palestinian state. But Nattiv, who describes Meir as a hawk, says she was likely "focusing more on survival, less on the Palestinian question."

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet their troops on October 21, 1973 on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.
Ron Frenkel / GPO/Getty Images
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GPO/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet their troops on October 21, 1973 on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.

The movie focuses on a brief but critical moment in time

A quick history refresher on the Yom Kippur War: a coalition of Arab states led by Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, catching Israel off guard and sparking a conflict that would grow to indirectly involve both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Israeli forces ultimately beat back the gains of the Arab armies, but at a significant cost: Nearly 2,7000 soldiers were killed, more than 7,000 were injured and nearly 300 were captured.

It also dealt the country an emotional blow, puncturing the feeling of invincibility that many Israelis had felt in the wake of 1967's Six-Day War, which more than tripled the size of the territory under its control.

"After the Six-Day War, when Israel felt that they are the kings of the Middle East, they got a giant slap. And they understood they're not, actually," says Nattiv.

Israelis criticized the government en masse for what they saw as a lack of preparedness, including their failure to take warnings of an imminent attack seriously, to fully utilize their intelligence in neighboring countries and to talk directly with the enemy (an approach Nattiv sees as informed by the Holocaust).

Meir took responsibility for the government's shortcomings and resigned in 1974. Nattiv describes her as "the scapegoat of the war."

She was later cleared of direct responsibility for intelligence failures and, Nattiv points out, played a vital role by securing critical assistance from the U.S.

That was thanks in large part to her friendly relationship with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played in the movie by Liev Schreiber. Kissinger, now 100, met with Schrieber ahead of filming to discuss his meetings with Meir (and supplied one particularly snappy exchange that's featured in the trailer).

There's been some debate over the movie's casting

Much of the conversation ahead of the film's release has centered around its casting of Mirren, who is not Jewish and relied on considerable makeup and prosthetics to embody Meir.

The ongoing debate over Jewish representation in movies has resurfaced in recent weeks, stirred by Bradley Cooper's controversial upcoming turn as Leonard Bernstein, wearing what many have criticized as an unnecessarily large prosthetic nose.

Mirren told the Daily Mail this week that criticism of her decision to play Meir, because she is not Jewish, is "utterly legitimate" and that she herself had raised the question to filmmakers before accepting the role.

Nattiv says it was actually Meir's grandson, Gideon, who had the idea for Mirren to join the project.

"He said 'I see my grandma when I see Helen, I just see her,'" he says, adding that those casting the movie clearly agreed. He does too, calling her "phenomenal."

Mirren spent three-and-a-half hours in the makeup trailer every day to become Meir, he says. And he says she embodied the former prime minister physically as well as mentally, adopting mannerisms like walking and talking slowly.

"I didn't see Helen for 45 days. I saw Golda," he adds. "Because when I got to the set, she was already Golda. When we went home she took all the prosthetics off of her face and the suits and everything. So I basically did not remember [what] Helen Mirren looked like."

The broadcast interview was produced by Phil Harrell and edited by Jacob Conrad.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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