Operation Sunflower opens a window onto a fascinating chapter of recent Israeli history that very little is known about: the creation of Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s. Since Israel has never officially acknowledged the existence of its nuclear weapons, it stands to reason that details of this program would still be shrouded in secrecy. But when you think about it, it’s baffling how Israel had the resources to create such a facility in the 1960s, when the country was that much poorer and smaller.
Operation Sunflower, directed by Avraham Kushnir, is an extensively researched dramatization of how this came about. Some of the characters are fictionalized versions of real people, others are actual historical figures. Disclaimers at the beginning and end state that the film has no basis in reality. Take that with a grain of salt.
The story centers on Feierberg (Baruch Brenner), a senior nuclear scientist in Jerusalem. He is concentrating on his own research when he is asked by the head of the department to take on three young researchers. Not long after this, Levi (Yehoram Gaon), the head of the Mossad, gets word of a huge weapons deal in the works, in which several Arab states and Iran are about to get a tremendous arsenal of sophisticated conventional weapons from the Soviet Union, enough weapons to destroy Israel. He also learns, through a French envoy (Emanuel Halperin), that the French are trying to develop a nuclear program but, in spite of the large amounts of money they are spending, cannot perfect the necessary formula.
Bringing this information to prime minister Ben-Gurion, Levi is told to develop an Israeli nuclear weapon as fast as possible.
Levi turns to Feierberg, who is reluctant to help for a complicated mix of personal and moral reasons.
Having fled Germany, he feels pressured by the weight of history to help create a weapon but is concerned that his work may take the lives of many innocent people.
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Levi works hard to allay this concern, telling Feierberg that the weapon will be a deterrent to war rather than an incentive to kill. But even once Levi has made his point, there is still a problem – one that Levi, with all his intelligence-savvy, doesn’t see coming. Feierberg is homosexual and is worried that he will be vulnerable to blackmail or that he will be putting his lover (Sasha Demidov) at risk by working on a nuclear option.
The personal drama is compounded by the presence of his three students who are helping with the quest to create a weapon.
Gila (Daniella Kertesz, last seen on screen fighting zombies with Brad Pitt in World War Z), a very serious student who has serious qualms about the project, agrees to participate because she has fallen in love with Feierberg, not knowing about his sexual orientation.
While obviously we all know that a nuclear weapon was built, director/writer Kushnir has created a gripping story, bringing us back to a very different era in which, often, Israelis were asked to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. The production design faithfully recreates the early 1960s down to the tiniest details of rotary-dial phones and offices filled with endless rows of binders.
A framing device where a contemporary man and his mother, supposedly the sister and nephew of Feierberg, hunker down in a bomb shelter as Iran takes aim against Israel isn’t necessary to the story. While I understand that the contemporary angle may have been intended to bring urgency to the plot and to draw in younger audiences, the story is dramatic and important enough to stand alone.
Baruch Brenner is the standout in an excellent cast. I last saw him as the husband in Kushnir’s previous film, Bruria, about the changing roles of women in Orthodox Judaism. Brenner plays Feierberg in a low-key performance that is utterly convincing. We can feel the weight of the repression and pressure that hem him in at every moment. Tzofit Grant gives a compelling performance as Levi’s assistant who gives him several of his best ideas.
While the film raises as many questions as it answers, Operation Sunflower is a thought-provoking and moving drama about a critically important subject.