Golda is a biopic about Golda Meir and the Yom Kippur War. The film was released in the US on August 25, 2023. Golda Meir was Israel’s fourth prime minister, its first and only woman prime minister, and the third woman prime minister in the world. Her tenure was from 1969 to 1974. She resigned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Golda Meir was not only exceptional because she was a woman and a leader, and not only because she rose to power without being the wife or daughter of a male leader. World leaders typically cultivate as glamorous an image as they can; attractiveness is a form of power. Golda Meir, in her youth, looked like a studious, serious young lady, more interested in books and service than primping in front of a mirror. In her maturity, Meir looked like a grandmother. Pulling back her long, graying, frizzy hair into a bun and keeping it in place with barrettes was her one obvious grooming choice. Her suits were in neutral colors, conservative and unadorned. She wore sensible shoes that came to be known as “Golda shoes.” Eschewing obvious appeals to glamour, Golda Meir, counterintuitively, became an icon.
Meir lived a life on the front lines of historic events that affect us today. She was born in 1898 in Kiev, what is now Ukraine, and what was then part of the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire was not a safe place for Jews for much of the early twentieth century. Anti-Semitic violence was increasing significantly. “Between 1918 and 1921, over 1,000 anti-Jewish riots and military actions … were documented in about 500 different locales throughout what is now Ukraine … a conservative estimate is that 40,000 Jews were killed and another 70,000 subsequently perished from their wounds, or from disease, starvation, and exposure … About two-thirds of all Jewish houses and over half of all Jewish businesses in the region were looted or destroyed,” writes historian Jeffrey Veidlinger.
A photograph of the child Golda Mabovitch is a portrait of sadness. Five of her siblings died in childhood. “I can’t recall anything good or happy. I remember the strife at home, a real … shortage of food. And I remember the fear of pogroms,” Meir would later say. Among this little girl’s earliest memories was one of her father boarding up the house to protect his family from a rumored pogrom.
The Mabovitch family escaped to America. Little Golda watched the store when her mother had to buy supplies. Meir made aliyah to Israel with her husband in 1921, and quickly took on leadership positions. She signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. She would go on to be the first Israeli prime minister to meet with a pope, and she hosted West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s visit to Israel.
Several feature films and documentaries have covered Meir’s life. Anne Bancroft, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Davis, Tovah Feldshuh, Valerie Harper, and Colleen Dewhurst have all played Meir on either stage or screen. Golda 2023, rather than presenting Meir’s entire life story, focuses on the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Director Guy Nattiv and screenwriter Nicholas Martin dramatize what they call new revelations about that war that will significantly alter received interpretations of Meir’s role, and the role of other key figures. Nattiv is one of two Israeli directors who has won an Academy Award. Nicholas Martin’s previous project was writing the script for the 2016 Meryl Streep – Hugh Grant biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins.
Martin explains one reason he focused the film so tightly on the Yom Kippur war. “We’ve got such a thumping narrative of the Yom Kippur War, such a clear beginning, middle and end, and she’s under so much pressure, I think if we cut away from this it would dilute the tension … just sticking to this one story … tell this one story well.” He believes that in moments of crisis, people reveal their true characters.
Martin is British, and not Jewish. He saw how intensely people debate Israeli matters. He wanted to explain to outsiders some of the challenges facing Israel. He also wanted to change Israelis’ minds about Golda Meir’s performance during the Yom Kippur War. Exactly because he is neither Jewish nor Israeli, he felt he could bring an outsider’s objectivity to the hot topic of responsibility for Israel’s high casualty rates and unpreparedness in 1973. He hopes viewers “will reassess Golda, see more of the complexity of the situation and maybe see a different narrative.”
Helen Mirren, who has previously played Queens Elizabeth I and II, Cleopatra, and Catherine the Great, stars as Golda Meir. Mirren is not Jewish and her paternal ancestors were Russian aristocracy. The choice of Mirren to star as Meir stirred up great controversy. Protestors miss an important point. A biopic about an elderly woman who was never a great beauty and who is accused of mishandling a war is not an immediate box-office draw. Helen Mirren has been an award-winning actress for decades. She is famous as a “MILF.” Her name will fill theater seats and help any success the film ultimately enjoys.
Historian David M. Perry argued at CNN that “any non-Jewish person putting on a fake nose in order to portray a Jew is colliding with a grim history. Images of Jews with big noses have been associated with some of the most virulent anti-Jewish stereotypes.” Actress Maureen Lipman protested Mirren’s casting as Meir. “It would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.” “Jews Don’t Count?” asked Variety. There is a huge outcry when, for example, a straight actor is chosen to play a gay character, but there is no similar outcry when non-Jews portray Jewish characters, Variety argued. “Underpinning the disparity is the whisper of a suggestion that Jews don’t deserve the same compassion as other minorities because they are over-represented in entertainment.”
Blogger Noah Berlatsky, writing in CNN, coupled protest against Mirren with Woke objections to Israel. Berlatsky condemns those Woke boogeymen, Israel and “whiteness.” “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 … The movie does little to acknowledge the quality of Arab soldiers.” The film is also at fault, he insists, for not praising Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who attacked Israel. Sadat attacked because, according to Berlatsky, what Sadat really wanted was peace with Israel. “Western cinema is replete with stories of White military underdogs struggling and overcoming non-White foes.” Golda is “a straightforward story of righteous White Western victimization and ultimate triumph … 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.”
Berlatsky’s unhinged Woke diatribe relates to another controversy around Golda. Lots of people don’t think Israel has any right to exist. And they hate Golda Meir. The Washington Post granted Golda only two stars out of five. The comments section includes virulent posts, for example, “Meir was a vengeful Zionist … she said loudly and often that no such people as the Palestinians exist. Israel is a state founded on lies and terrorism.” Another, “I have never forgotten Meir’s comment that Palestinians didn’t love their children as much as Israelis. She repeated it many times as Zionists were killing Palestinian families. I suppose they should have given all they had to stop Israeli brutality. It was and is such an evil statement and reveals the core of this so called mother of Israel.”
Haaretz quotes Meir as saying, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” Meir did not deny the existence of Arabs in Israel. Rather, she denied the existence of a distinct Palestinian people or nation.
Not just politics or anti-Semitism might interfere with enjoyment of Golda. Two weeks after the film’s US release, it has a 55% rating among professional reviewers on RottenTomatoes. Professional reviewers dismiss Golda as a conventional biopic that doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a talky movie about war that doesn’t include any combat sequences. The audience score, though, is a favorable 89%.
What one must suspect is that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hostility is driving the skewed numbers at the Internet Movie Database. Anyone online can vote at IMDB. As of early September, 2023, twenty-three percent of the votes for Golda are one-star out of a possible ten stars. Serious moviegoers would not award Golda a score of one star out of ten. These are votes inspired by politics rather than film quality. In fact, only two percent of scorers rate Golda at two-stars. It looks like a lot of people went to IMDB just to vote Golda a one-star, and skipped the possibility of awarding it two stars. Twenty-two percent of votes give Golda ten stars out of ten. That kind of gap in votes strongly suggests people voting their politics, rather than an authentic reaction to the quality of a film.
The real tell comes when you limit votes by country. Would you care to guess how many stars Egyptian voters were most likely to grant Golda? You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to predict that 90 % of Egyptians voted Golda as a one-star film. I can find no record online of Golda ever having opened in Egypt. In 2015, Egyptians made such a stink that a museum had to remove a photo of Golda Meir from an exhibit on female leadership. In other words, Arabs, driven by obsessive, irrational hatred, who have not seen a movie, rushed IMDB to down-vote that movie.
The above numbers are just votes. They don’t necessarily accompany reviews written by non-professional movie fans. As of September 5, there are no IMDB reviews of Golda that give it scores of one, two, or three stars. The real accumulation begins at seven-star reviews; they are the mode, or most frequently awarded number of stars, so far.
My favorite way of assessing the value of a film is not professional reviews from prestige publications like the New York Times. I read those reviews but I assess them as politically and culturally slanted. Rather my favorite method is to go to the Internet Move Database and filter reviews by the setting “prolific reviewer.” These reviews are written by hardcore film fans who have posted hundreds of reviews at IMDB. There’s no money in this; there’s no fame. Prolific reviewers post these reviews out of pure love of movies. Prolific reviewers at IMDB give Golda very solid, positive reviews.
This film fan thoroughly enjoyed Golda. I sat through it twice in a row and my attention was fully focused on the screen and the story both times. This wasn’t Oppenheimer, the summer’s bloated, awards-mongering, attention-hogging biopic. Oppenheimer struck this viewer as more of a display case for Christopher Nolan’s cinematic bag-of-tricks than a coherent entree into a human soul. Golda wants to change people’s minds, but it’s not an aesthetically ambitious film. Golda’s plot is uncluttered. It is as fast moving and as straight in its path as an expertly-aimed arrow. The plot is tightly focused on a fascinating main character. This main character confronts rumors of war and then a shooting war; she confronts an imperfect peace; she struggles with the broken shards in the war’s aftermath; she dies.
Some have complained that this film about war is a dialog-heavy movie about a woman, not a male soldier, and that the film features no combat sequences. Again, the film is focused on Golda Meir, and how she, an elderly and terminally ill woman, who thought she headed merely a “caretaker” government until a new prime minister was elected, handled a shocking war. Meir does visit soldiers at the front, but other than that visit, the film stays focused on Meir in offices, a hospital, and her home.
Willing suspension of disbelief worked well. I accepted Helen Mirren as Golda. The rest of the cast was perfect. Camille Cottin is a sexy French comedian. I never saw Camille Cottin onscreen; rather, I saw Lou Kaddar, Meir’s trusty right-hand-woman, confidante, surrogate mother, occasional drill sergeant, and best friend. In one scene, Meir is in pain after a cancer treatment. She doesn’t look like a world leader, an Amazon leading her tiny country to victory over overwhelming enemies. She looks like a fragile old lady who can hardly move. Kaddar must force Meir out of bed, get her dressed, and inject her with something that makes it possible for her to visit troops. This injection is just one of many pharmaceutical boosts that fuel Meir’s performance. According to screenwriter Martin, during the war, Meir upped her daily cigarette count from seventy to one hundred. She drank up to thirty cups of black coffee a day.
Handsome Israeli comedian Lior Ashkenazi shines as David Elazar. Ashkenazi manages to communicate solidity and reliability in a crisis. Elazar took a great deal of blame for low preparedness and high casualty rates after the Yom Kippur War. He died in 1976, at age 50, of a heart attack. Golda presents Elazar in a positive light.
Liev Schreiber has a couple of very brief scenes as Henry Kissinger. His performance is award-worthy. He captures Kissinger’s deep, distinctive, German-accented voice, but Schreiber offers so much more than an impersonation. He conveys the steely Realpolitik behind the heavy glasses. As he squares off with Golda, you really sense the meeting of formidable, elemental forces, and countless human lives at stake.
Rami Heuberger is convincing as a Moshe Dayan having a meltdown so severe you think he might really use nukes, even though you know enough history to know he didn’t use nukes. Ohad Knoller is a young and cocky Ariel Sharon who will not allow a piece of homemade chocolate cake to go to waste. Ed Stoppard, son of Tom Stoppard, is a reserved air force commander Benny Peled. Rotem Keinan is suitably subdued as Mossad director Zvi Zamir.
Golda begins with a series of newsreel-style clips introducing the audience to Israel’s early twentieth-century history. As the newsreels play, the silhouettes of birds move across the screen. This is the first of many references to birds in Golda. There is also smoke onscreen. Smoke in the film comes from dozens of cigarettes, but it also may represent the fog of war. It may call to mind the smoke rising from the chimneys of the extermination centers in Nazi occupied territory. Newsreels also depict Watergate and Nixon’s downfall. At first this reference seemed extraneous, but it comes to be essential to the plot.
The audience’s first view of Mirren as Meir is from the back, and from the back Mirren is indistinguishable from Meir. We see Meir’s conservative suit jacket and slumped shoulders. There will be many similar shots of Meir, including one in which her aide is bathing her back in a tub. These shots of Meir’s back and shoulders call to mind the expression that one carries the weight of the world on the shoulders. We see a close up of Meir’s eyes in black and white. Slowly but surely, these eyes are flush with color. They look old, wrinkled, and tired, but even in this tight close-up, they communicate, “Don’t mess with me.”
A girl is playing Beethoven on a piano in what looks like a church. This is Finchley School in England. A woman goes to a telephone, identifies herself as The Postmistress, and says, “Zinc, cadmium, chlorine, hydrogen.” This scene is never explained further, but apparently this is one way spies and coded messages relayed Syrian and Egyptian war plans to Israel.
Meir confers with her military leaders. Some say that the reports of attack are “crying wolf.” There is a plan, they say, to ruin Israel’s economy by getting her to mobilize needlessly. Mobilization would be interpreted as an act of aggression, some say, advising against mobilization. Moshe Dayan, who had achieved great success in the Six Day War, is dismissive of reports of an attack. Some argue that mobilizing needlessly on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, will bring down the government. Meir orders the mobilization of 120,000 soldiers.
Meir and Kaddar walk through a morgue. We see only the feet of the corpses on metal shelves lining the walls. Meir, still smoking, undergoes treatment for cancer. We can see that this treatment is painful. Meir walked through the morgue so that no one would know she is being treated. She will make this trip a few times in the film, and each time she walks through the morgue, there are more bodies on the shelves. This is an allusion to the war’s mounting death toll. Later, Lou Kaddar will be seen washing Meir’s back in a bathtub. As Kaddar washes Meir’s back, clumps of Meir’s hair come loose and fall out. This, we understand, is a result of the cancer treatment.
Meir goes to a rooftop and observes starlings murmurating, that is, flying, as a group, through the air and forming patterns. Nattiv has said that this scene was meant to evoke soldiers mobilizing. Suddenly the starlings turn into chimney swifts and enter a chimney. Meir looks startled. I did not know how to interpret this scene except as a visual demonstration of Meir’s anxiety and confusion. Also, again, as with the smoke, the chimney struck me as a possible allusion to extermination camps. The Holocaust had ended not even thirty years before the Yom Kippur War. The birds flying into the chimney was certainly an ominous sign.
Meir chairs a meeting with her military advisors who, contrary to past custom, do not rise when she enters the room. She has to bang something on the table to get them to stop talking and attend to her. As she and her advisors debate, there is an air raid siren. Debate is over. Israel is under attack.
Meir knows she must teach the enemies of the Jews a lesson they will never forget. She phones Henry Kissinger, shown in bed. “We’ve got trouble with the neighbors again,” she reports. Spoken by one Jew, Meir, who escaped pogroms, to another, Kissinger, who escaped Nazi Germany, this line has great pungency. Meir is not overly hopeful that Kissinger will help. She knows that Saudi Arabia will punish the US for helping Israel by limiting oil supplies. That is, in fact, what happened, in the Arab Oil Embargo. Crude went from four dollars a barrel to twelve. Meir also knows that the Cold War focused America’s attention on limiting the power of the USSR, which supported the Arabs. Kissinger, Meir says, wants Israel to have a “bloody nose,” after which the Egyptians will reject the Russians and embrace the US.
Moshe Dayan, flying overhead, observes Syria’s attack on Israel in the north. He listens to military radio transmissions. He sees overwhelming Syrian forces decimating Israeli troops. He hears Israeli troops dying. He returns to Meir shaken and talking of Armageddon, Masada, resignation, and nukes. He offers to resign because he had resisted reports of an imminent invasion. Meir is both maternal and tough. She refuses his resignation, reassures him that he is needed, and tells him, “I need you on your feet. Go home, wash your face, and snap out of it!”
Meir turns to Elazar, who has been an understated hero so far in the film. “Dayan is finished. Take no orders from him. You are in full command.” Meir returns to the roof, where she tells Lou Kaddar, her aide, that “if the Americans throw us to the dogs,” under no circumstances is she, Meir, to be taken alive by the Arabs. This line informs the viewer of how dire the situation is. The next time Meir walks through a corridor, there is a wild bird flying through the hall.
Shir Shapiro (Ellie Piercy), one of Meir’s secretaries, has a son at the front. Meir is clearly moved by the plight of mothers who are losing their sons. She asks her commanders to rescue trapped soldiers. The rescue mission is a trap; this well-intentioned mission results in more deaths. Meir is in a war command room studded with listening equipment. She hears as Israelis come under fire from Soviet-made Sagger missiles. She listens as soldiers beg to be allowed to retreat, as they say they want to go home, as they die. She listens as Arabs take over the communication equipment and announce that they are victorious. “The Zionists are dead. We are in full control.” That night, Meir wakes from sleep to listen, again to all of these remembered messages haunting her. Across from her bed hangs a painting of flying birds.
Benny Peled recommends that Israel bomb Damascus. The Soviets are undertaking a massive airlift of military supplies. Watergate suddenly enters into the picture. Nixon has been weakened by scandal. Perhaps he cannot risk losing any more of his scant political capital. Meir tells Kissinger that she might travel to the US. This, of course, is a subtle threat. A visit by Meir to the US will “alarm the Jewish community.” Kissinger promises Phantom jets. They arrive, noisily, overhead, in a “here comes the cavalry” moment.
Meir is shown in her kitchen. Just as her physical appearance is humble and grandmotherly, without glamour, her home is similarly humble. In fact it could be the set for a working class American family’s home on the old TV sitcom, Roseanne. Meir places a homemade chocolate cake on a table. Her military advisors arrive. Ariel Sharon proposes an attack. The other military men roll their eyes. They think Sharon is a showboat. No one but Sharon eats a piece of the cake.
In the military command center, Meir and her advisors watch Israeli jets bombing Egyptian targets. They celebrate. As Israeli casualties are announced, Meir pulls out a small notebook and writes the number down with a pencil.
Henry Kissinger arrives in Meir’s humble home. She leads him into the kitchen. She urges him to eat borscht. He declines; he’d been fed a lot in his previous diplomatic meetings. Meir leans over and whispers to him, “You have to eat it, Henry. Leah made it and she is a survivor.” A pale woman with a humorless expression stares at Kissinger. He does indeed take a spoonful. He pronounces the borscht good. Leah leaves the kitchen.
Meir, with borscht prepared by a Holocaust survivor, is reminding Kissinger of their shared Jewishness and of their shared victimization. Kissinger insists that he is first an American, then secretary of state, then a Jew. “We read from right to left,” Meir says.
Kissinger will not be seduced. He demands that Meir agree to a ceasefire. Meir mentions a possible Israeli occupation of Cairo. “You will be on your own,” Kissinger warns. Egypt’s Third Army is vulnerable to obliteration by Israelis. Israel must not push its military advantage against the Third Army, either, Kissinger insists. He wants a “humanitarian corridor.” Kissinger warns Meir that if Sadat falls as a result of too severe a defeat in the Yom Kippur War, Sadat will be assassinated and replaced by a Soviet puppet. Of course, Sadat was later assassinated. His Islamic Jihad assassins cited Sadat’s participation in the Camp David Accords as motivation.
But, Meir asks, “If the Arabs defeat us with Soviet weapons what message does that send to the free world?” Meir demands a list of POWs and a date for their return. She mentions torture. In fact Egypt and Syria both committed atrocities against Israeli POWs, including torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism.
In a subsequent phone call to Kissinger, Meir again reminds Kissinger of the exceptionally vulnerable status of Jews in the world. She mentions pogroms in Kiev, during which attackers would “beat Jews to death in the street for fun.” She remembers the terror of hiding in the cellar. “I’m not that little girl any more,” she insists, in a very “don’t mess with me” voice.
Meir vomits blood. There is no drama. Her failing body is just another fact she has to deal with. She washes her face, and Lou Kaddar gives her a pill. She returns to work.
Zamir tells Meir that a highly expensive monitoring system that was supposed to warn Israel of oncoming attacks had been switched off. The film makes clear that in its interpretation, Meir was not responsible for Israel’s lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War. Rather, Israel’s military leaders were responsible. One factor was hubris. The Six Day War victory went to their heads. Zamir blames Major General Eli Zeira. Meir volunteers to take the blame. She doesn’t want the populace to know of the failures behind the scenes. Zamir promises to defend her memory.
Lou Kaddar approaches Meir with a list of casualties. They recognize the name of Mrs. Shapiro’s son. Kaddar and Meir walk into an office where women are typing rapidly. Clearly, everyone knows exactly why Kaddar and Meir have entered the typists’ office. The bearers of bad news walk slowly through the office and slowly but surely the typists stop typing. The room grows quiet. There is only one woman still typing, at a furious pace. That typist is Mrs. Shapiro. Kaddar puts the casualty list down on Shapiro’s desk and points to the name. Mrs. Shapiro begins to cry, and so did I, both times that I watched this scene.
Golda’s framing device is Meir’s testimony before the Agranat Commission. The film opens with her swearing in before the commission. Towards the end of the film, Meir says to the commission, “I will carry the pain to my grave,” in reference to the high casualty rates Israel suffered because of its lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War. After acknowledging the pain she feels, she says to the Agranat Commission transcriptionist, “Don’t write that down.” The transcriptionist’s fingers stop and retreat from the keys.
In a final scene, an old woman is in a hospital bed, hooked up to life-preserving equipment. It’s December, 1978. On TV, broadcasters are discussing the Camp David Accords of September, 1978. As part of that coverage, they show news footage of Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir meeting in person. Meir teased Sadat, “You called me the old lady.” Sadat laughs. Meir says, paraphrase, “I am a grandmother, and as a grandmother to a grandfather, here is a present for your new grandchild.” The hospital equipment changes from a steady beep, beep, beep to a sustained alarm. Meir has passed. Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” plays on the soundtrack. “Who By Fire” is taken from the Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef,” chanted on Yom Kippur. The camera pans to a hospital hallway, where the bodies of dead birds lie scattered.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.