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Helen Mirren is 'Golda'
01:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

In Guy Nattiv’s new feature film “Golda,” which arrived in theaters Friday, Helen Mirren plays Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during the crisis of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Mirren is not Jewish, and she wears heavy makeup to look like the unglamorous, chain-smoking politician.

Accordingly, the movie is inevitably fodder for an ongoing discussion about whether non-Jewish performers should play Jewish roles. There have been thoughtful arguments pro and con, but the focus on who should be cast can sometimes drown out questions about what that casting is doing.

Noah Berlatsky

In “Golda,” casting Mirren — a White, internationally renowned, British actress — is a metaphor for the way the film blurs Israeli identity with a generalized White, Western identity. By doing so, it attaches Israel’s moment of crisis to a tradition of triumphalist American military films that validates the virtue of the US, of Israel and of whiteness.

From Israel’s founding in 1948, the country was attacked by Arab states multiple times. In 1967’s Six-Day War, Israel’s superior air force wiped out much larger armies from three Arab countries. After that victory, it controlled the Golan Heights, captured from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula, captured from Egypt, among other territory.

Israel’s sweeping success in 1967 made its leaders and its populace feel invincible, and they were caught almost completely by surprise when Egypt and Syria staged a joint attack in October 1973 on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. They made significant advances, threatening all of Israel, until Israel ultimately turned the tide to retain the land it had acquired in 1967.

The movie is based on these historical facts. But which facts get emphasized in a 100-minute movie matter a good deal. “Golda” presents itself as a straightforward telling of the Yom Kippur War, incorporating clips of archival footage to cement its authenticity, and Nattiv is careful to choose details that emphasize Israeli perspectives and virtue.

Yet Israeli failures in the war were based on extreme overconfidence. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had “utter contempt for the fighting qualities of the Arab armies.” That contempt was very much unwarranted; as one Israeli company commander said, Egyptian forces fought with determination and “operated exceptionally well.” The movie does little to acknowledge the quality of Arab soldiers, or how completely they took the Israelis by surprise.

There’s also remarkably little discussion of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat was a brilliant and, in many ways, courageous head of state who, before the war, had attempted to convince Israel to exchange its territorial gains for diplomatic peace. Israel, understandably mistrustful, refused. Sadat then moved irrevocably towards war — in order, many historians believe, to put himself in a stronger position from which to negotiate peace and the return of Sinai.

The Arabs’ stunning military victories early in the conflict were in large part due to Sadat’s innovative use of Soviet antitank and antiaircraft technology, carefully and cautiously deployed, according to Abraham Rabinovich’s exhaustive “The Yom Kippur War.” Rabinovich writes that “The supreme victor in the Yom Kippur War was the man who initiated it — President Sadat,” who “parlayed an audacious military move … into an audacious diplomatic process that restored [Egypt’s] lost lands.”

The movie does end with archival footage of Sadat and Meir at the peace table, pointing the way to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which has held to this day. But the success is presented as Meir’s, while Sadat’s own maneuvering and desires, to say nothing of his assassination in 1981 by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who saw the treaty as a betrayal, are barely touched on. His perspective and his history are almost entirely omitted.

But there is one non-Israeli who is given star treatment in the film: US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (played by Liev Schreiber). Kissinger was an important figure; American willingness to provide military supplies and diplomatic pressure was crucial to Israeli victory.

The movie suggests, though, that Washington’s decisions were motivated by morality rather than realpolitik. According to the film, Meir appealed to Kissinger’s Jewish roots and sense of decency by reminding him, subtly and not so subtly, of antisemitic atrocities in Russia and Germany. If this happened, it’s certainly not treated as an important exchange in most accounts of the crisis. Instead, Kissinger saw the war as a way to increase US influence in the region and counter the Soviet Union, allied to the Arab states, at the height of the Cold War.

Golda’s evocation of her own family’s history of oppression makes her, and Israel, more noble and sympathetic, making even her threat to murder a surrounded Egyptian army seem honorable and necessary. Similarly, Kissinger’s supportive role in her drama frames him as a bulwark against war crimes and global atrocities — which, given his part in the bombing of Cambodia, is misleading, to put it as mildly as possible.

The leveraging of past crimes against Jewish people to erase or legitimize violence by Jewish people is especially disturbing, given the current right-wing Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territory.

TOPSHOT - picture dated November 1973 of Israel  Prime Minister Golda Meir during a radio adress conference in Tel Aviv after the so called "Kippur war" opposing Israel to Egypt. (Photo by Gabriel DUVAL / AFP) (Photo by GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP via Getty Images)
'She was a tower of strength': Golda Meir's grandson on the Israeli PM's leadership
11:01 - Source: CNN

These historical elisions and tweaks are given a poetic coherence by images of Golda. Nattiv’s camera lingers on Mirren’s made-up, lumpy, characterful features, twisted with care and sadness, and on her stooped figure descending a long interior staircase. She stands, resolute and tiny, amidst her generals, or faces down a board of inquiry with a steady gaze and a cigarette. There are many scenes of her in the hospital fighting cancer, the pain of her illness merging with the pain of Israel’s crisis.

Mirren’s performance of vulnerability, courage and triumph is familiar because Western cinema is replete with stories of White military underdogs struggling and overcoming non-White foes. “Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Red Dawn” (1984), “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) — there are no shortage of examples.

The point here isn’t that Israel was the villain in the war. The Arabs launched a surprise attack and were clearly the aggressors. Sadat praised Hitler numerous times over his career; Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had his own grim history of human rights atrocities. And though the Kremlin didn’t want a war any more than the US did — Sadat had expelled Russian diplomats in 1972 because they refused to provide him with more offensive weapons — once the war started, Russia provided aid to advance its own interests, just as the Americans did.

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    Instead, the point is that the Yom Kippur War was a complicated conflict for territory and geopolitical advantage, abetted by prejudice and intransigence on every side. “Golda” turns that into a straightforward story of righteous White Western victimization and ultimate triumph. It’s able to do that, in part, because it makes sense, to Western audiences, for a famous White actor like Mirren to play a Jewish leader like Meir who also broadly fits in the cultural category of “White” for most Western audiences.

    White non-Jewish actors can be cast as White Jewish characters because White Jewish people (like White Irish people or White Italian people) are, at the moment, generally perceived and accepted as White. That may create problems of Jewish representation in various ways — as when the non-Jewish Bradley Cooper bafflingly decides to strap on a giant caricature of a Jewish nose to portray Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein. It can also allow Jewish stories to be assimilated to, and used to justify, standard Hollywood narratives that place virtuous White heroes at the center of history.

    There can be some pleasure for Jewish people in seeing major film actors in major films portray Jewish heroes. But there have to be ways of doing that that don’t involve whitewashing the ugly actions of Kissinger. If we are really committed to peace and justice, Jews and non-Jews alike need more honest, and more difficult, narratives than the one we see when we look at Helen Mirren’s makeup.