The Gatekeepers — currently Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary, opening February 1 in New York and Los Angeles — is a movie that could only have been made in Israel.
Six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli agency dealing with domestic terrorism, each spent 12-15 hours in filmed conversations with Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, who spliced excerpts into a 97-minute film dramatized with archival footage and animated recreations. At the end, Moreh shows some of the “gatekeepers” saying Israel is winning battles but losing the war; that the use of force can never be wholly successful and eventually degrades those who use it; and that Israel is in danger of becoming “a Shin Bet state.”
It is a well-made, thought-provoking film, but the conclusions in the last two minutes are not entirely supported by the 95 minutes that precede them. In significant ways, they are in fact contradicted by at least one of the “gatekeepers” — Avi Dichter, who served under Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon from 2000 to 2005. Dichter summarizes Moreh’s apparent position: if we use force against the Palestinians, they will use force against us; and if we stop using force, they will stop using force. Dichter tells him the first part of the equation is true, but that the second is not.
In another exchange, recounted by Moreh at a recent screening, Dichter recalled receiving a 5 a.m. call with intelligence that a terrorist would bomb a bus later that morning, while Israelis were commuting; someone was found who fit the description of an alleged accomplice, but he was unwilling to talk; you have two hours, Dichter said, to find a person on his way to perpetrate a mass murder. So what do you do? At the screening, Moreh did not hazard an answer; and the non-response reflects the lack of easy answers to the issues in the film.
The film’s press materials claim that “for the first time ever,” the former Shin Bet heads are sharing their insights publicly, and Moreh says he was “startled” they agreed to talk to him. But in fact they have spoken publicly before — in a two-hour joint interview in 2003, published at the time in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, in which the “gatekeepers” expressed the same conclusions. The 2003 interview was instrumental in influencing Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza — with results different from those confidently predicted at the time. But the 2003 interview goes unmentioned and unaddressed in the The Gatekeepers.
As a result, while the film raises important questions, it also withholds important information needed to answer them. The film uses allegedly “first time ever” interviews to push the same points that were pushed back in 2003 by the same people, which produced disastrous results. A better film would have explored why things failed then, and why they have failed since, rather than simply push the same points again as if they had not already been given a real-life test.
The old aphorism is that all politics is local, but Meryl Streep – in a performance remarkable even for Meryl Streep – demonstrates that politics is personal, a reflection of the character of the person involved in it.
The Iron Lady begins with an elderly and frail Thatcher, unrecognized as she shops in a small grocery store, and periodically circles back to portray the career of the grocer’s daughter who changed the world, with the film always returning to Thatcher in the present, alone in the world. Perhaps the movie is intended as a slight to Thatcher – see, look at her now. Perhaps it is making a less tendentious point – power is ephemeral, we are all headed toward a lonely end. But almost in spite of itself, the film shows a deeper truth: the person may fade, but the accomplishments of character endure.
In her brilliant reflection on what Thatcher accomplished, “There is No Alternative” – Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, Claire Berlinski writes that “Margaret Thatcher often seemed like an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of Margaret Thatcher.” If so, The Iron Lady reflects an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of a lifetime. Thatcher was character in motion; Streep plays a character who exemplified character. It is an exhilarating performance. But the truth is even more amazing.
In 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, Western countries were struggling with crippling stagflation; they were burdened with oil prices that had quadrupled since 1973 and high levels of taxation; Soviet and Chinese proxies had expelled the United States from Vietnam, overthrown governments in Latin America, seized power in multiple countries in Africa and the Arabian peninsula; American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a possible prelude to a further move into Saudi Arabia. Jimmy Carter’s responses were a malaise speech, a warning against “our inordinate fear of Communism,” and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
In Britain, the social and economic situation was especially dire. Unemployment was high and inflation out of control; people felt society was breaking down; the economy was controlled by unions, strikes were rampant, the currency had been devalued, public services were shabby, taxes were confiscatory, per capita income was half that of the countries Britain had saved or defeated in World War II. It was, as Thatcher had said in a 1976 speech, “close to midnight.”
Rod Lurie’s brilliant remake of Straw Dogs – one of the seminal films of the 1970s – opens Friday. The film retains the plot, characters, and violence that made the original film extraordinarily controversial, but Lurie has made some significant changes, and he says he is trying to make a different point than Sam Peckinpah made.
In my view, the movie makes a third, more important point — one that is critical to consider in the days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Back in 1971, Peckinpah’s film was savaged by many of the leading film critics: Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker that it was the “first American film that is a fascist work of art.” A young film critic named Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that it was “offensive” and “totally committed to the pornography of violence.” Thirteen critics wrote to the Times in London to revile the film. In its first public preview, a third of the audience walked out.
Lurie’s film is no less violent, and like the original it features extraordinary performances — this time by James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, and James Woods in the roles originally played by Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, and Peter Vaughn. But the contrasts between the two films are the clues to their respective meanings, and taken together, they provide some important insights about “fascism” then and now.
In both movies, a young American named David Sumner returns with his attractive wife Amy to her small hometown, so David can work on his writing. Peace and quiet are the essence of what he seeks. The town is an oppressive place, with townspeople (especially Amy’s old boyfriend) instinctively antagonistic to David. The tension — cultural, sexual, interpersonal — is present from the opening and builds throughout, heading toward a rape of Amy while David is lost in the woods with a gun in his hands, on a fool’s hunting trip. The climax of the movie is an orgy of violence that leaves the characters and the audience both stunned.
In the original, the town is in the English countryside and David is a math professor working on a book about astrophysics, seeking refuge from the campus protests of the Vietnam War, about which he has failed to take a stand. In Lurie’s remake, the town is the American Deep South, and David is a screenwriter from Hollywood working on a screenplay about Stalingrad in World War II. Lurie has brought the conflict figuratively closer to home, placing it in a setting that involves not characters from two countries but two parts of America.
Lurie has said that the message of his remake is distinctly different from that of Pekinpah’s film: “At the end of [Peckinpah’s], the hero finds the animal inside him. At the end of my film, the hero finds the man inside him.” But there is an even broader point, one made more apparent by considering the different real worlds in which the two films were made.