The cigarette smoke drifting through his latest movie is a metaphor, director Guy Nattiv freely admits.
It represents “the fog of war, which prevents you from seeing 1 meter ahead of you,” he says. With its hazy tinge and sense of claustrophobia, “Golda” revolves around the choices one woman made during a tense period for Israel.
Golda Meir was the chain-smoking prime minister of the country on Oct. 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked and caught her unprepared. As the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War approaches, Nattiv explains how he mostly skipped the battle scenes and instead drew on horror tropes and his love of paranoia thrillers to offer a new look at the controversial leader (played by Helen Mirren).
For Nattiv, the urgency of that time is repeating itself. “We are right now … in the Yom Kippur of democracy in Israel,” says Nattiv, pointing to current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants to strip powers from the judiciary. That has sparked months of protests, including some in New York this week as Netanyahu traveled to the United Nations General Assembly and met with President Joe Biden.
“I really hope we’ll succeed, because if not, it’s the end of Israel,” Nattiv says.
Watch “Golda” in theaters and on demand. This interview has been edited and condensed. For more, listen to the Political Theater podcast.
Q: Why did you want to make this movie? It focuses on just a few weeks of Golda Meir’s life.
A: This project already existed when I came on board, but the script was completely different. It was more of a war movie, rather than a requiem or a magnifying glass on Golda. There were massive war scenes and stuff.
I did my pitch as an Israeli who lives in America, and I said to Nicholas Martin, who wrote the script, “The way you wrote it is not how Israelis talk in command rooms.” I wanted to get in there and work with him on an authentic version of that, and also put the war aside for a second and enlarge the Golda part.
Helen Mirren was already attached, and they met with other directors. When they decided to go with me, I said, “I want to meet Helen first and see that she’s on the same page.”
It was an amazing meeting. She told me that she [visited Israel in her 20s] and was on a kibbutz. She picked tomatoes and she volunteered and she did a north-to-south trip, like hitchhiking, and she slept on the beach in Eilat and the whole Israeli experience after the Six-Day War. She had a Jewish boyfriend, and she fell in love with Israel and with the Jewish people. When I told her my take on this movie, she said, “I’m totally game.”
Q: Where did you go from there?
A: We started to dig into who Golda was, and the little bits and pieces that no one knew. We actually met with two people who are still alive and were some of her closest people. One is Meron Medzini, who was her press secretary, her right hand. He’s 91, and he told me all the secrets: that she went to Hadassah Hospital at 3 a.m. through the morgue, got treatments [for lymphoma], smoked, and then went back and no one knew about it — only Lou Kaddar, her assistant.
Q: Those are particularly moving scenes, because at the same time she’s trying to keep the country from being annihilated, she’s also dealing with cancer.
A: [We also talked with] Adam [Snir], her bodyguard, who was next to her through all the hard times. So all this information that we got, we brought it to the Nicholas Martin script and did the changes. Suddenly from an 80 percent war movie, it became like Golda in the war.
Q: The movie has a lot of horror conventions: the ambient sound, the way you shoot her in this green pallor. I love seeing that, because when people think about political movies, they usually think they’re kind of a drag.
A: Not necessarily. “Frost/Nixon” was amazing. But look, I grew up on films from the ’70s. You know, “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman, that entire movie is based on sound, which is phenomenal. Or “Blow Out,” the Brian De Palma film from the ’80s, where John Travolta is a soundman and accidentally hears a murder. These films shaped my childhood and my future filmmaking.
I went back to the paranoia thrillers, political thrillers like “The Falcon and the Snowman.” So it’s kind of an homage to those films. “No Way Out” with Kevin Costner was a good one. They all depicted something very dark and grim and a little horror-y in a way. And horror films like “The Shining” — it was more than a horror film. It was deep, it was profound, it was emotional, it was powerful. So these are my DNA.
I came to “Golda” trying to recreate the style of what we see as her bunker, the claustrophobic corridors, and the loneliness that this woman was in: the lonely older woman walking alone as someone who’s an outsider, because she was from Milwaukee. She was not a sabra, and the commanders are in their own group. Moshe Dayan, he was like the Superman of Israel in the ’60s, and then in the Yom Kippur War, all these misogynist, proud men got a giant slap. And this is how the grown-up in charge, aka Golda, is handling the situation.
Q: Do you see this as relevant to what Israel is going through today?
A: Now you’ve touched a nerve, because we are right now, as we speak, in the Yom Kippur of democracy in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers are basically blind to what is going on. And not only that, he’s also destroying everything our founding fathers and mothers built, from [David] Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin. All those people had integrity, and they cared about the country more than they cared about themselves.
Millions of people are going to the street to demonstrate. I went to five demonstrations like that and got beaten by police officers. Veterans of the Yom Kippur War wore [slogans like] “I fought the ’73 war. Now I’m fighting again, this time for democracy.”
In this movie, the smoke is such a metaphor for the fog of war, which prevents you from seeing 1 meter ahead of you. That’s the blindness we have now as a nation, and it’s connected, obviously, to an extreme right-wing wave. Argentina is going through that, and Hungary is now almost like a dictatorship. Poland, Russia, Turkey — I mean, you name it.
I really hope the judicial system will block Bibi and will say, “This is it.” And I really hope we’re not going to be on the verge of a civil war when Benjamin Netanyahu says, “I don’t accept your ruling.”
Q: Have you heard those reactions as people watch the movie?
A: 100 percent. We screened the film in Jerusalem in an open amphitheater, and when the president came to give a speech — he’s supposed to be a nonpolitical figure, right? — all the people yelled, “Democracy. Democracy. Democracy.” And Helen said, “Cool. If they’re going to demonstrate, I’ll join them.”
And that’s the good thing. All the quiet left are leaving their homes and starting to demonstrate and fight for democracy. I really hope we’ll succeed, because if not, it’s the end of Israel, as we all know.
But there’s another thing that we didn’t touch on, the Palestinian issue that needs to be solved. I mean, right now Israel is controlling millions of people under basically a siege. And that’s something that needs to be taken care of. We need to solve this inner problem, because it’s not our enemies. It’s what we’re doing to ourselves.