Helen Mirren triumphs in Golda Meir biopic ‘Golda’

If Golda finds an audience, Helen Mirren’s work will surely snag her an Oscar nod, and very deservedly so.

 HELEN MIRREN as Gold Meir in ‘Golda.’ (photo credit: Jasper Wolf, courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival)
HELEN MIRREN as Gold Meir in ‘Golda.’
(photo credit: Jasper Wolf, courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival)

BERLIN – Golda, the Golda Meir biopic by Guy Nattiv, was screened for press preview Sunday and will have its official premiere at the 73rd Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, on Monday night, with its star, Helen Mirren, walking the red carpet.

Mirren gives an extraordinary performance as the late Israeli prime minister, in a story that focuses on her handling of the Yom Kippur War, the most challenging crisis of her political career. She makes Golda vivid through a haze of cigarette smoke, as the real-life Meir was a heavy smoker and so were most of the IDF brass. Mirren spends the movie with a cigarette in hand, even in scenes when she is at Hadassah Hospital, receiving treatment for lymphoma.

If you didn’t know it was Mirren in the title role, you would never guess that it is the glamorous British actress, who has graced many billboards around Berlin as a brand ambassador for L’Oreal cosmetics, under all that makeup and prosthetics. She has been suitably de-glamorized so that she can pass as the down-to-earth politician who broke barriers as she led Israel in the 60s and 70s.

Mirren speaks English throughout the movie, which makes more sense than it normally does in such biopics because Meir grew up in the United States. Mirren approximates Meir’s English speech quite brilliantly (tinged with a tiny bit of a Yiddish accent) although the Oscar-winning actress, who played another iconic female leader in The Queen, gives a fully formed performance, not an impersonation. If Golda finds an audience, Mirren’s work will surely snag her an Oscar nod, and very deservedly so.

An Oscar-worthy performance

Meir’s controversial handling of the war, specifically the debate among Meir and her advisors as to whether Israel should mobilize in response to enemy troop activity, is at the heart of the movie. The movie’s framing device is Meir’s testimony to the Agranat Commission following the war, which was formed to evaluate whether Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and other military personnel should be censured.

BRITISH ACTRESS Helen Mirren spoke with wit, self-deprecation and fierce intelligence about her extremely varied career, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (credit: STUDIO PHOST)BRITISH ACTRESS Helen Mirren spoke with wit, self-deprecation and fierce intelligence about her extremely varied career, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. (credit: STUDIO PHOST)

WHILE HISTORIANS tend to agree that the Yom Kippur War, in which Israeli troops were greatly outnumbered at the outset, was not Meir’s finest hour, you would not get that impression from seeing this movie. This is Meir’s story and it wants us to empathize with her, by emphasizing the two sometimes contradictory sides of her personality: the frumpy maternal woman who grieves for every soldier who falls on the battlefield – she records all losses daily in a notebook she carries – and the tough-as-nails commander.

In a scene released as a teaser trailer from the movie, she tells Henry Kissinger, played in the movie quite convincingly by Liev Schreiber, that she will not allow humanitarian aid to be brought to trapped Egyptian troops until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat agrees to recognize Israel by name and to stop calling it “the Zionist entity.”

The movie also includes one of Meir’s most famous quotes, which was part of a conversation with Kissinger, when he said, “Golda, you must remember that first I am an American, second I am Secretary of State and third I am a Jew,” and she responded, “Henry, you forget that in Israel we read from right to left.”

The movie concentrates on the southern front and stays away from the battles along the Syrian border that were the basis for the television series, Valley of Tears, created by Kan and available on Apple TV+, which gives a very different perspective on the war.

While Golda will, of course, attract great interest when it opens later this year in Israel, it is made so that it will draw international audiences who likely do not know much about either Meir or the Yom Kippur War. There is a certain amount of expository dialogue that is necessary to give background on the war but which Israelis will know all about already.

When the movie opens in Israel, I will write a full review. For now, hats off to Nattiv for getting this movie about one of the 20th century’s most interesting and important women made and to Mirren for delivering another memorable performance.

At a press conference at the Berlinale on Monday afternoon, Mirren, who was radiant in a magenta sweater and looked nothing like the character she played in the film, Nattiv, screenwriter Nicholas Martin and Lior Ashkenazi, who played the chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar, fielded questions. 

Asked whether he was prepared for the controversy this look at Meir would likely stir up in Israel, Nattiv said he relished the re-opening of the debate on her legacy. “Golda is not a super-clean character in this movie,” said Nattiv. “She made mistakes and she took responsibility, which leaders are not doing today. She did.”

Mirren said light-heartedly that one aspect of Meir’s personality with which she identified was that like Meir, she loves buying and using the latest kitchen equipment. But on a more serious note, she said, “I came away from it with the deepest of admiration for her, and a deep kind of a love for her. She was extraordinarily brave and with a commitment to Israel that was total.”

In response to a question on “authentic casting,” meaning whether it was kosher – so to speak – for Mirren, who is not Jewish, to portray Meir, Nattiv said he felt Mirren could not have been more authentic or suitable for the role. When he first met Mirren, he said, “I felt like I’m meeting a family member, an aunt, I felt like I’m meeting a Jewish person because for me, she’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda... I just found her very authentic.” 

Mirren, who has spoken out about this issue before, saying in the past that she understands why people would question her casting in the role, remained silent. But Ashkenazi drew applause saying, “Let’s say there was a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s gonna play him? A Jew or a non-Jew?” and this remark ended the event.