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‘Golda’ review: Not even Helen Mirren can save this wayward biopic

By September 7, 2023No Comments11 min read
Helen Mirren in GOLDA

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Directed by Guy Nattiv and written by Nicholas Martin, Golda tries to tell a nuanced story about a complex woman. It almost completely fails.

Set in 1973, Golda revolves around the Yom Kippur War and focuses on Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren), the only woman to ever serve as Israel’s prime minister. In interviews, Israeli director Guy Nattiv cites the 2013 declassification of documents revealing that Meir took the blame for her commanders’ negligence as motivation for making this film. Nattiv, one of two Israeli directors who has won an Academy Award, wanted to make a film to educate Israeli viewers about Meir, who may only associate her first name with a brand of ice cream, and rehabilitate her historical image and role in that conflict.

This review will not address whether Nattiv has accomplished his goal in Israel since then, and it will not address the specifics regarding historical accuracy of the film, the declassified documents, and the prevailing opinions about the Yom Kippur War, including but not exclusively from Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian perspectives.

As an educational tool, Golda fails. It opens with a rapid-fire mixed media of archival film footage being moved around the screen as if the film was being played on a microfiche reader and with the sounds of a typewriter in use. Nattiv evokes the forms of media that would have been covering Meir at that time, but how do those visual references reveal Meir’s interior life? Will most viewers even understand the reference to a microfiche reader? Also, as an orienting tool to give viewers background on Israel’s armed conflict prior to the Yom Kippur War, the montage was so breakneck, it became disorienting, the opposite intended effect.

Helen Mirren in GOLDA

“The most contested region in the world.”

Additionally, these images are interspersed with birds, an ongoing theme revisited throughout Golda. In the opening sequence, they feel like a non sequitur image, but as the film unfolds over the course of 21 days, Nattiv shows Meir going to the roof for fresh air/smoking breaks and watching murmurations in the sky so the image is grounded in her routine. The birds’ symbolism shifts depending on the scene. A Google search revealed that the deeper significance behind murmuration is to reflect unity, which did not feel aligned with the film’s aim.

When Meir reenters the building’s interior, a bird flies through the corridor into the war room. At the end of Golda, masses of bird bodies line the floor. By the end, it was more obvious that the birds were signifiers for people’s souls, so one bird was Golda’s free spirit entering this confining, unnatural space, but later the birds seemed to symbolize fallen souls of the soldiers who died in the war. Using the symbol in the opening sequence delayed this conclusion, so the visual metaphor was ultimately ineffective.

Golda also has a caption problem. The timing of revealing the date, a person’s name, and their title lacked coherent rhythm. The caption would often appear too late to be useful, then disappear too quickly to associate the actor/character with the role. A film needs to establish a person’s character on an ordinary day before showing them fall apart as a foundation before delving into the character’s emotional journey.

“In my day, they stood for the prime minister.”

Throughout the beginning and middle of Golda, the day’s number was revealed at the beginning of a scene or sequence. Later, Nattiv skips forward for the sake of brevity, but the jumps need to be predictable. For instance, instead of showing “Day 4” after “Day 3,” he jumped to “Day 7.” Which is fine, but instead of showing the day’s number at the beginning of the scene, he starts to show it at the end, which makes it no longer informative.

For additional confusion, Nattiv changes from showing the entire day to evening to only showing the night. So when that number comes up, it’s unclear if this is the literal next day. But the contiguous hours or the evening after a morning and afternoon have passed. For instance, is one night scene at 11 pm, then the next at 12 am?

The framing device of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the government’s preparation for and response to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, either should have been cut or expanded, but was inadequate. Hearings as a way for a protagonist to justify her life are a well-worn trope. The five men were interchangeable widgets, not real characters with personality. It was also easy to forget that they were even a part of the movie since Nattiv is allegedly showing flashbacks of Meir’s memories as told in testimony, and they dominate the film. The most effective scene is when the five men sit in stunned silence after Meir answers one of their most harrowing questions, and she answers them without hesitation and imbues the simple act with sorrow. 

“If we have to, we’ll fight alone.”

Nattiv is plagued with being unable to convey basic information to the audience, so it is unsurprising that when Golda attempts to do so with more complex material, it still falters. Nattiv claimed that “They blamed the woman in the room,” but scapegoating is not depicted. Instead, Nattiv depicts Meir as a person who made the conscious decision to preserve confidence in the government by creating a narrative, not becoming a victim of it. There is a gap between Nattiv’s goal and his creation.  

Nattiv is determined to depict misogyny, but without the dialogue or Mirren’s physicality, it was not obvious. Without seeing scenes when her men naturally stand when someone enters, a viewer would not know that it is a sign of disrespect when they do not stand for her. Also there are scenes when she holds official meetings in her home and serves them food or coffee. It is not how one would expect a male prime minister to behave, but it did not seem weak or sexist. It gives her an excuse to stand over them, command them and trigger an impulse to treat her in a more deferential way by forcing them to eat. In the boardroom, Meir appeared to be in control with the way that she called the meeting to order or stopped them from talking once she made a firm decision and was no longer deliberating. 

Also, Golda shows a woman and man’s sphere which only Meir can bridge. The leaders of government are predominantly men whereas the servants, silent workers, are her assistant, her housekeeper and the sea of stenographers with Shir Shapiro (Ellie Piercy) acting as the stand-in for all Israeli mothers worried about their sons. Nattiv waits until the end of the film to note in the closing that women died during this conflict. It seems precious to complain about misogyny, but create this possibly fictional, gendered construct of how women served Israel in the government and military. Because Meir is sensitive and notices Shir’s pain, it makes Meir more likeable.

“I’m not that little girl hiding in the cellar.”

Golda succeeds in juxtaposing Meir’s fight against cancer with the battlefront. To get treatments, she walks through a morgue, which is initially empty. But as the war continues, the bodies pile up. The dissonance resonates. An ailing elderly woman controls the lives of young, vital people and outlives them regardless of her flawed decisions: making mistakes by delaying the attacks, smoking during radium treatments. Their bodies haunt her regardless of whether they are visible. After the first treatment scene, Meir tells her assistant to kill her if she shows signs of dementia.

This comment offers important context for the bird theme. It is unclear whether Golda is depicting Meir’s understandable psychological stress over war or a was beginning to recognize the effects of dementia. Nattiv explained, “I want them to understand that she was an emotional, funny, yet agonized woman, that she was the wrong person in the wrong time, in the wrong place. It’s almost like a sliver of getting into the time tunnel to spend an hour and a half with this woman and understand how she felt as an isolated, sick, and desperate lady who had the composure.”

It felt like Nattiv wanted to make a historical film using psychological, elevated horror movie techniques, specifically ones seen in Midsommar (2019), and it did not work. He uses the smoke that Meir, a chain smoker, exhales to evoke field explosions. Instead of recreating the carnage on the battlefield, he uses the camera’s movement sweeping over the objects in the war room to evoke strafing. When he shows archival footage, it is edited to appear as if Meir is visualizing what is happening. Nattiv depicts her as a tortured soul with a decaying body. Later when she is alone at night, she has auditory hallucinations of the front’s sounds heard earlier in the day. 

“I will carry that pain to my grave.”

While films do not have to be historically accurate, if the goal is to educate, then Nattiv’s view of Meir needs to be fact checked against reality. Who was the right person? Maybe he means someone who was not dying. Was Meir plagued with nightmares? Did she hallucinate? Did she self-harm? What is with historical biopics eager to show women leaders falling apart at the end of their life? 

The Iron Lady (2011) trucked in the same dynamic, but films about male elected leaders rarely show them have psychological breaks with reality, and there have been US Presidents who have literally died or been sick while in office. Why do filmmakers feel the need to show women leaders as psychologically and physically weak to humanize and make them likeable? Also Nattiv needs to elaborate on screen why he thinks that Meir was the wrong person for the job. 

Films about women leaders do not need to make them sympathetic. Humanizing comes with treating them like three dimensional figures with shortcomings. If Meir was a sh**-talking, callous person who did not care about the well-being of the other side, show it just like Christopher Nolan did with Truman in Oppenheimer (2023). If she did see the opposition as human beings, Nattiv should find a straightforward way to illustrate it. Giving Meir a mental health crisis is an ableist and sexist way to get viewers to empathize with Meir if it did not happen. Like her or hate her, she made sure not to lose. 

There was a promising contrast between Meir as a private person then as a performer playing the role of prime minister, but without closely paying attention to the dialogue, it could easily be missed. Chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) freaks out during a televised appearance, so Meir rushes to repair the damage with her own speech, which is more confident and reassuring.  Without showing more about these people and the conditions, it was not obvious whether Dayan’s response was honest and appropriate or whether Meir was lying about the Israeli’s defense’s effectiveness.

“We will keep fighting for a guarantee of life and peace.”

Nattiv seems to prefer reassuring lies from leaders over genuine human emotion if it is destabilizing. Later someone asks her, “Will you create an army of widows and orphans?” She replies, “The world must believe I am.” Later when talking to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), Meir gives the performance of a lifetime and seems willing to rip the world to shreds to win. It is a powerful scene that references her childhood and seems genuine. Which part is the act? Is the act telling someone that she needs to be convincing? Being convincing does not mean that you did not mean it, just that others may think that you are bluffing despite your actual position. Nattiv never reveals the real Golda.

Golda works whenever Mirren and Schreiber are acting as if they are talking to each other—even if the actors did not share the same space when Nattiv was filming Meir and Kissinger’s phone conversations. Nattiv shows Meir playing Kissinger like an instrument by referencing the Russians to win American support. The scene also resonates because Meir recollects her Ukrainian childhood hiding from Russians, which is germane to current events. It was the only part of the film that seemed authentic, and it was easy to forget that it was a movie, not a documentary. In the abstract, Schreiber, who is a mountain of a man, does not feel as if he would be suitable to play Kissinger, but he nails Kissinger’s voice and physical demeanor without any prosthetics. 

The bottom line.

Mirren is an amazing actor, but she never quite captures Meir’s folksy, grandma charm. She is suitably mournful and has gravitas, but in a world where there are probably tons of women actors who actually look like Meir, what is the point of having Mirren sit in a makeup trailer for hours? Mirren attracts more butts in the seat and dollars at the box office, yet Mirren was not so good that I can imagine anyone else in the role. Another actor, Claudette Williams, plays Golda’s body double. Mirren sports an American accent. At what point should the casting director just get another actor? 

Golda is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Bleecker Street. Read more articles by Sarah G. Vincent here.

  • GOLDA - 5/10
Sarah G. Vincent

Originally from NYC, freelance writer Sarah G. Vincent arrived in Cambridge in 1993 and was introduced to the world of repertory cinema while working at the Harvard Film Archives. Her work has appeared in Cambridge Day, newspapers, law journals, review websites and her blog,

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