The events of so-called Yom Kippur War, or the fourth Arab-Israeli War, are seared in the memory of all those who lived through them. The joint invasion by Arab forces from Egypt and Syria in the dawn hours of Oct. 6, 1973 nearly led to Israel’s complete military defeat. The country’s surprise victory changed the face of the Middle East. Not least because the conflict played out as a proxy Cold War between the Soviets — who were arming Arab forces in Egypt — and the U.S., which supplied weapons to Israel.
At the center of it all was Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister. A Labour politician and sickly grandmother forced to command an all-male war council, Meir was, in the words of Israeli director Guy Nattiv, “the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The picture that emerges of Meir in Nattiv’s Golda — with Helen Mirren playing the sharp-tongued chain-smoking leader — is complicated and contradictory. Capable of astounding brinkmanship, making decisions that will cost thousands of lives, Mirren’s Meir is also wracked by anxiety and doubt.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Berlin film festival on Monday, Feb. 20, Nattiv spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the myth and the reality of Golda Meir, his decision to cast the non-Jewish Mirren in the lead role, as well as the parallels between the events of 1973 and the war in Ukraine today.
What is it about Golda Meir and the story of the Yom Kippur War that so fascinated you?
I was born in 1973, I was born into this war. My mother ran to the bomb shelter with me as a baby. My father went into war. I grew up with this war story, with Golda as an icon in my life. They called us the children of ’73. They promised us that, when we were older, we wouldn’t have to go to the army, because there would be peace, this older war will be over. I was born into this trauma, what’s called the Vietnam of Israel, because we weren’t prepared and we lost so many soldiers. It was a dreadful war. Not in the sense that every war is dreadful, but this was, a big trauma for Israel after the Six-Day War, and after the victory of ’67.
I was born into the myth of Golda. But I didn’t really know who she was. There weren’t a lot of details growing up. She was almost like The Queen for England, you know? She was like everyone’s grandmother but nobody knew who she really was. Then, around the year 2000, these documents were released which showed what really happened in those war rooms. The fact that she was sick, and nobody knew about it, all the stuff that’s in our film, about how she was sneaking off to the hospital to get cancer treatments, how her entire command was dysfunctional. Other details too, about her life as a grandmother and how she was the only woman in the room surrounded by dysfunctional men.
But Golda was the wrong woman at the wrong time. She didn’t want to be Prime Minister. She was the scapegoat for the entire Labour Party. At the start of the war, she just found herself in this situation. She was a great stateswoman. But she wasn’t a soldier. She didn’t come from the army.
What image of Golda Meir did you have growing up and how do you think your depiction of her in this film will challenge or change that?
She was the Margaret Thatcher of Israel. She was the Iron Lady. She was very tough. She was really smart, really savvy and knew a lot about the world. She knew how to handle the Americans, obviously, she knew how to bring help in from outside of Israel, whether it was weapons or planes. And she was a woman with principles. If you look at her from the perspective of today, she seems very conservative, in a way. You’d probably consider her right wing and not left wing. She did not trust many people, and, unfortunately, that included the Arabs, which is why she missed her opportunity to make peace. The way she handled those 20 days in the war, made me understand how impossible a situation she was in. Again, she was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. But because she was a great stateswoman, she held things together. Without her, the ministers and all the commanders would probably have lost their shit. And because of her great relationship with the US, with Henry Kissinger, she saved our asses. Another thing I didn’t know was how ill she was when this was all happening. She was battling not only in the war room, but also physically battling cancer.
How did you come to cast Helen Mirren for the role?
When I joined the project, there was talk about Helen, that she read the script, and she really wanted to engage. And I was like, wow, she’s perfect. But I really wanted to talk to her because I needed to feel if she’s got a Jewish soul, you know what I mean? Because it’s all about authenticity for me. When we met for the first time, on Zoom, I felt the Jewish vibe, I felt my grandmother, I felt the vibe of a Jewish woman. And I told her, there’s something very Jewish about you. Well, she said, I was in the kibbutz. I went to Israel as a 21-year-old, I lived in the kibbutz, I had an Israeli boyfriend and we toured the country after the Six-Day War. So I need we had to meet. She came to my house, with a coffee, wearing flip-flops. We sat and talked for hours and hours and hours. I just fell in love with her aura with her intelligence with her vibe.
I said: “Helen, I’m Israeli and the third generation of Holocaust survivors. And you have more Jewish soul than a lot of Israelis I know. I would be honored. If you would portray Golda.” We met Golda’s family, and they supported the casting, they said they couldn’t see anyone else playing Golda.
We shot in the U.K., but I wanted the rest of the characters around Golda to be Israeli, so we brought Israeli actors to London and had a real Israeli team around us, editor, production designer etc. It felt like I was making an Israeli movie. It felt really authentic to me.
Did the opposition to Mirren’s casting, among some sections of the media in Britain, on the grounds that she is not Jewish, surprise you?
It did surprise me because all of these Israelis, and Golda’s family, were so supportive of Helen. It was also surprising, because so many Israeli actors are getting so much work these days. There are so many Israeli friends of mine that are being cast in international shows. I didn’t see any problem with it. If it was only non-Jews in the movie, and it was like totally not authentic, I would understand the criticism. But the cast is very Israeli-Jewish. Even Camille Cottin, who plays Golda’s assistant, she’s half-Jewish. Yes, Helen is not Jewish, but she’s so perfect for the role. So it felt true and 100 percent authentic for me to cast her.
To be honest, on the set, I didn’t see Helen at all, I only saw Golda. She’d get in for her makeup, from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., and when I came to set, she was already Golda.
What did she bring to the role that surprised you?
Humor. Helen has this cuteness that she can then turn suddenly and be someone who’s strict and tough. She has so much range and brought such deep intelligence to the role, as well as a lot of tenderness to go with Golda’s role as a grandmother. I think Helen has this Jewish soul. All the other Israeli actors fell in love with Helen and with her Golda. She was a magic bullet.
What direction did you give her on set?
My goal was to slow her down. Because Golda was very, very slow. The way she walked, the way she spoke. It was the opposite of her commanders, these really fast-paced types. When I spoke to people who worked with Golda, they all said: “Oh my God, she was so slow!” Even smoking, taking out her cigarette was slow. It drove people crazy. But that was how she thought. She took a beat before she said something. This was what we worked on. I’d go to Helen and say: “You’re a little too fast. I’m gonna pull you back.” I kept reminding her that she’s more of a turtle. Not a bunny. She immediately got it, and she went into this kind of slow rhythm. But she’s already worked very hard without me, developing things like the accent and Golda’s rusty voice. She came completely prepared. All that was left to do was little bits and pieces.
How many cigarettes did she actually smoke during the shoot?
Tons! On the first time, she said: “I don’t know if I can smoke so many cigarettes. It’s going to be really challenging for me.” But it’s a part of Golda’s character, she smoked cigarette after cigarette. She didn’t even stop while getting cancer treatment in the hospital. It’s insane. But it’s all true. I give Helen a lot of credit, she smoked herbal cigarette after herbal cigarette.
This film is getting released almost exactly one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What parallels do you see between your story and that conflict?
I absolutely see parallels, in that it’s a small country attacked by a much larger military force and I think that will evoke some reactions. But it is a little bit different because America was much more involved in the Yom Kippur War. They were basically supporting us with weapons shipments from day one. And, unlike Ukraine, Israel was not attacked directly by Russia, we were attacked by the Arab countries, with the support of the Soviets yes, but we were not attacked by Russia. But I think if you look at Golda Meir, at her leadership, it reminds me of what [Ukraine President] Volodymyr Zelenskyy is doing. She knew how to turn to the Americans and to address the world to ask for help. Zelenskyy is a big admirer of Golda, he often quotes her in his speeches. Of course, she was Ukrainian as well. So, obviously, there are parallels, but it’s not exactly the same.
How do you think your film will be received in Israel, do you think it will be controversial?
Another great question. Well, everything I show in the film is well-known in Israel. Everything is out there. Everybody knows that the war was a failure and Golda’s name will always be connected to the failure of the Yom Kippur War. Again, she was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t even want to be prime minister. But people in Israel are very versed about her. Some people love her. Some people hate her. And what the film depicts about the war we as Israelis already know. What I’m trying to bring that a lot of Israelis don’t know is the human side of Golda. A lot of Israelis didn’t even know that she was deathly sick during this period. That she was getting cancer treatments. That it was the last years of her life. The Yom Kippur War is Israel’s Vietnam. It’s a failure, not a triumph. And since Golda Meir, we haven’t had a female leader in Israel, which I think is something connected to these 10 crucial days.
I ask because members of Israel’s new government have publicly criticized other filmmakers for making films they claim were “anti-patriotic.” There was even a call to take back government money from films if they portrayed Israel in an unfavorable light. Do you feel there is a pushback, or even censorship, coming from the government?
I made this film without any censorship, because it’s not backed by the Israeli government. It’s all private money. Together with Nicolas [Martin], my amazing screenwriter, we told the story we wanted to tell, with no restrictions. But, going back to your question, I have been very vocal about what’s happening in Israel right now. I signed an open letter together with other Israeli filmmakers saying I completely disagree with the policy of the current Israeli government. I think it’s dangerous. I want to tell the stories that I want to tell without restrictions. I’m joining with my peers, other Israeli filmmakers, in boycotting Israeli funds that are trying to restrict the voices and the stories they tell. This is a major thing that never happened in Israel before. If this had been in place before, we would never have had amazing films like Waltz With Bashir or Foxtrot. It’s something I’m really against and I really fear for the situation in Israel. I’m really worried as well about the government’s proposed reforms of the courts and judicial system. What [the Netanyahu] government is doing right now is terrible, really terrible.
It might be counterfactual, but what do you think Golda would have thought of this Israeli government?
I think Golda would have supported the judicial system, the judges and the rule of law. Throughout her life, she completely trusted in the court, in the judges. She was an honest, straight person. She was very humble. She wasn’t corrupt at all. She was the complete opposite of what’s going on with the right in Israel, the whole corrupt, champagnes lifestyle. In terms of the way she lived her life, and the way she handled things, Golda was the total opposite of what’s happening now politically in Israel. But, regarding the Palestinian issue, I’m not sure she would have done much differently. Because, even if she was a member of the Labour party, Golda was very, very conservative when it came to the Arab situation.
Again, counterfactual, but do you think Israeli history would have been different if you had had more female leaders after Golda Meir?
I truly believe it would have been different. It might be wishful thinking, but I think women would have done things differently. I think a competent woman, instead of a corrupt man, would have made a lot of difference.