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."
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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The movie "Golda" depicts the only woman ever to serve as prime minister of Israel. Her name was Golda Meir, a chain-smoking politician in her 70s. Helen Mirren plays the prime minister who receives a warning in 1973 about the Arab nations surrounding Israel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDA")
HELEN MIRREN: (As Golda Meir) Marwan says the attack will begin around sundown. Soviet diplomats and their families are leaving Egypt. If he's right, we have less than 12 hours to prepare.
INSKEEP: It's a true story. Armies attacked from Egypt and Syria, and unlike its other wars, Israel was unready. The film's director, Guy Nattiv, grew up in Israel in the aftermath.
GUY NATTIV: I was born in 1973. My mom, you know, went to the shelter with me as a baby. My father went to the front, and I grew up on nothing. Nobody spoke about Golda or the war or what really happened there. It was kind of a secret.
INSKEEP: Why would it have been so?
NATTIV: Because there were so many [expletive]-ups, and Golda took the blame. She was the scapegoat of this war.
INSKEEP: The movie brings to mind "Darkest Hour," the film about Winston Churchill in 1940 in World War II. You see a famous leader at the moment when everything is coming apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF WARZONE BATTLE)
INSKEEP: As the enemy attacks, Meir visits army headquarters to listen to radio transmissions of Israeli troops in retreat or being killed.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Anyone there? My God. Anyone there?
INSKEEP: When Helen Mirren played Britain's Queen Elizabeth, she had every hair in place. As Golda Meir, strands of hair fly out and catch the light. She lives alone and climbs the stairs to a rooftop to consider her next moves while looking over Tel Aviv in the dark. Guy Nattiv says two aides of the real-life Golda Meir are still alive.
NATTIV: These two people gave us all those little information like that she was led into Hadassah Hospital at 2 a.m. to get those radiology treatments and smoke during them and how many cigarettes she smoked a day. And she became really human, Golda.
INSKEEP: If I may, I don't think I'm giving anything away to note that in the film, Golda Meir is brought in for cancer treatment and smokes all the way through the treatment. You're telling me that is a true detail so far as you know?
NATTIV: Everything that you see in this movie is true based on people that knew her. She smoked packets a day, drank 30 black coffee a day and did not really eat. She was killing herself in a way that the country was killing itself.
INSKEEP: I'm tempted to see that as a response to stress. Do you see it that way?
NATTIV: Oh, totally. And not only stress, you know, it's a country - 30 years before, there was the Holocaust. So just imagine these people, especially Golda, that went through so much horrific stuff in Ukraine as a kid.
INSKEEP: Golda Meir was born in Ukraine. Her memoir says of her early years that she mainly knew poverty, cold, hunger and fear. The fear came from mobs that sometimes walked through Kyiv threatening Jews. Her family moved to Wisconsin in the early 1900s, and then she emigrated to the new state of Israel, which emerged independent after a war.
NATTIV: There is PTSD - giant PTSD - and just, you know, walking with a sense that you will be decimated. So, yeah, I think it's stress. I think the whole approach to refuse to talk to the enemy is also connected to the Holocaust. I think this is something that was there in her DNA.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDA")
MIRREN: (As Golda Meir) We are fighting for our lives. If the Americans throw us to the dogs and the Arabs reach Tel Aviv, I will not be taken alive.
INSKEEP: The prime minister appealed to the United States for weapons, negotiating with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played here by Liev Schreiber.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDA")
LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Henry Kissinger) Madam Prime Minister, in terms of our work together, I think it's important that you remember that I am first an American, second I am secretary of state, and third I am a Jew.
MIRREN: (As Golda Meir) You forget that in Israel we read from right to left.
INSKEEP: And though Israel survived, her war was remembered as a disaster.
NATTIV: I think that this movie comes in a very troubling time for Israel because it's a film about blindness and deafness of these 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, with Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet and himself. They are blind.
INSKEEP: He's referring to the current government's effort to weaken Israel's judiciary.
NATTIV: They are leading us to catastrophe. I went with the veterans of Yom Kippur to demonstrate in Tel Aviv's streets. And, you know, on their shirts, those veterans, it said, I fought the Yom Kippur War. This is Yom Kippur war of democracy. For Israelis, this kind of a movie that brings horrible memories and kind of a full circle to a debacle again.
INSKEEP: So one of the parallels that you see between then and now is that the leadership then was blind, somewhat, or blinded themselves to the danger. You're saying that the current government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is blind to what danger, exactly?
NATTIV: To a danger of many, many pilots and army people saying, listen, if you're going to diminish the judicial system, we are not fighting for you because they say we are fighting for the kingdom, not the king. And that's the big difference between Golda and Benjamin Netanyahu. She thought about the people. She didn't think about herself. That's why she took the blame. She resigned. She left with a great shame because she cared about those soldiers. Benjamin Netanyahu cares about only one person - himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF DASCHA DAUENHAUER'S "TRIP TO THE SOUTH")
INSKEEP: When you talk about events in Israel, it's common for almost any discussion to reach back into the past. Guy Nattiv, the director of "Golda," aims to illuminate some of that past as he thinks of the present. The film opens in the United States today.
(SOUNDBITE OF DASCHA DAUENHAUER'S "TRIP TO THE SOUTH")
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
You know, I was listening to this, Steve, and thinking, where do the Palestinians fit into this story?
INSKEEP: I asked Guy Nattiv that question. He acknowledges he could have said more. There is a brief clip of Palestinians driven from a village in the film. He also says Golda Meir could have done more for Palestinians, which just indicates how much the story in the Middle East changes depending on the perspective that you choose. In this case, he chooses the perspective of Israel's first and only - so far - female leader. * Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.