“Well, I’m not going to get under the table, but don’t let me stop you.”
No one is questioning whether or not Helen Mirren is one of the grande dames of cinema. With more accolades than she probably even knows about, the Oscar winner has had the kind of career most actresses can only dream of, playing everything from an exhibitionist to a liberated housewife, to a Las Vegas madam. Yet there’s something that happens whenever Mirren is tasked with playing real-life women, which she’s done more times than people realize. As much as I hate to say it, she falters with these assignments. It’s not her fault, I should point out. Mirren does her research, crafts the character, and in the end, plays Helen Mirren. Keep in mind, that Helen Mirren isn’t a bad performance. But Helen Mirren isn’t Sofya Tolstoy, she isn’t Alma Reville, and she certainly isn’t Gold Meir.
Directed by Guy Nattiv, Golda centers on Golda Meir, Israel’s only female Prime Minister, and her handling of what became known as the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when the country faced attacks from a group of Arab states, including Egpyt and Syria over the Sinai Peninsula. Through flashbacks and archival recordings, Golda looks at how one of the most famous women in the world dealt with a war that lasted weeks but cost her and her country so much.
Golda sticks to the current trend of feature films based on real people who choose to focus just on a specific period in a person’s life instead of going for the exhausting cradle-to-grave treatment. By centering on the Yom Kippur War, Nattiv’s film is allowed to venture beyond the confines of the traditional biopic in the way it’s able to show the woman herself as both the leader of a country at one of its most perilous times and also a flesh and blood individual. We see Meir experience the different sides of war: the personal, the strategic, and the political, as well as the ramifications that come from each one. But we also experience Golda as an intimate character piece, bearing witness to Meir’s fragile mental state, which is clouded and plagued by both the greatest decision of her time as a leader and her own mortality. The real Golda Meir was as controversial a figure that ever existed. Yet this film chooses to largely forego the division she caused and examine the woman as a human being haunted by the same kinds of fears and insecurities that held even the most powerful captive.
But Golda as a film is still a bit of a rocky exercise. Perhaps feeling the pressure to make a movie about a female politician seem more visually interesting than it is, Nattiv attempts to add in an abundance of visual flourishes (many through the copious amounts of cigarette smoke that come courtesy of the main character) to no avail. Despite the way it valiantly explores its main character, Golda is a stagey, closed-off exercise that doesn’t always know how to articulate the story it’s trying to tell. The use of archival footage as present-day happenings proves somewhat lazy and the framing device of Meir being brought before a committee to answer for her decisions isn’t explored enough to be compelling on any level. The same also goes for the relationship with U.S. Secretary Henry Kissinger (Live Schreiber), whom Meir consults with periodically throughout the way. Even though neither the relationship nor the review of her actions is the point of the film, both story elements feel big enough to suggest that the filmmakers were genuinely interested in them at one point.
To hear that Mirren throws herself into the role should come as no surprise to anyone. As I said before, however, the fact that the actress spends most of the time pulling from her well-worn bag of tricks (albeit with the utmost commitment) is more than apparent. The actress carries the film ably and admirably, but it’s hard to feel as if we haven’t seen this performance before. Mirren comes alive most when Schrieber is on screen alongside her. His few scenes as Kissinger bring an unexpected spark to the proceedings as one of the most recognizable character actors of his generation does one of the best disappearing acts of his career.
Meir has been portrayed numerous times on both the stage and screen by the likes of Tovah Feldshuh and Judy Davis, among others. Lynn Cohen’s brief turn in Steven Spielberg’s Munich was a standout in the film and conveyed a great deal about the kind of leader Meir was in just two memorable minutes. Does Golda do Meir justice? Well, I’m sure some feel it does, and probably even more who feel it gives her too much. As one of the most divisive political figures of the post-war era who is still courting controversy in certain circles, Golda is sure to draw the same kind of criticism that any film that tries to dissect a controversial person does. While it does veer into different directions, Golda is just compelling enough in the end to warrant its existence. No matter the feelings a person may have about Meir, most would be right in feeling she deserved a better film treatment.