August 22, 2023
Author’s Note: This review may not contain a 100% factual retelling of the Yom Kippur War. The summarization of this conflict is based on the events shown within the film.
Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) walks into her war room smoking a cigarette, likely her twelfth of the day. The generals are already seated, a small sign of disrespect that none of the previous male leaders had to endure. But this is not a time to dottle on manners, as Israel is under attack on two fronts: in the northern Golan Heights by Syria and the west Sinai Peninsula by Egypt. This would be the fourth war between the Arabs and the Israelis, with the first three ending with a swift Israeli victory. But this time is different, as the element of surprise is on the side of the Arabs. Meir now has the fate of the country on her shoulders, with total collapse imminently approaching if she doesn’t act precisely and decisively.
Meir sits in meetings every day hearing either depressing or conflicting reports (often both). Some of her generals press her to counterattack the Arab forces, and some plead to hang back in defense and hope that the Americans will bring them enough supplies to hold out. There’s also the constant clacking of the stenographer's keys, regular cancer treatments, and the knowledge that Israel is increasingly becoming a land of widows and orphans by the day.
Golda is as much a biopic about Meir as Lincoln is for Abraham Lincoln and Darkest Hour is for Winston Churchill. Nicholas Martin’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) script uses the nineteen-day crisis as an examination tool for Meir’s character. Those coming in without previous knowledge of the conflict will find themselves lost. A few shoddy visual recreations of the battlefields are used to help illustrate, but the majority of the action is heard through the radio chatter and backdoor channels. There’s also the unnecessary framing device of Meir testifying before the 1974 Agranat Commission that bookends the events of the film. Mostly it feels like a selfish opportunity for the filmmakers to prop Mirren’s performance up.
Mirren, who might have been a lock for an Oscar nomination in a different era, brings Meir back from the dead. The pounds of makeup on her face and the frayed wig are a minor distraction during the early stages. A cigarette is always in her hand, a tool to punctuate every line reading or drag on a moment of silence. It’s baity work, but nonetheless extremely entertaining. Her scenes with the U.S. Secretor of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber) are the highlights, with the actors finally being allowed to have a little fun with the rigid material.
An expository sizzle reel opens the film, providing a twenty-five-year history of the various Middle Eastern conflicts through newspaper headlines. Golda has about the same amount of depth throughout its next 100 minutes, with brief flashes here and there to keep things interesting. Mirren is a performer that deserves a part like this, but she also deserves a better film around her.