NEW YORK (AP) — One of the more famous quips attributed to Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister, was her response to how it felt being a woman in an overwhelmingly male political arena.
“I don’t know,” she was oft quoted as saying. “I’ve never tried being a man.”
Meir indisputably broke a glass ceiling — one that hasn’t been broken since — but she had a prickly relationship with feminism, a label she certainly didn’t embrace. Still, argues director Guy Nattiv, the trajectory of Meir’s career — especially the nature of the public blame she received for losses in the 1973 war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states — was very much connected to her gender.
“A hundred percent,” Nattiv says, “if she was not a woman it would have ended totally differently.” And that’s one of the reasons Nattiv says he relished directing “Golda,” starring Helen Mirren: the chance to reframe the image of a woman many Israelis recall with great ambivalence — and who the youngest generation, he says, knows chiefly as a picture on currency or for sharing a name with a popular ice cream chain.
Nattiv was born in Israel in 1973, the same year war broke out between his country and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. His father fought in the conflict.
Aside from examining who was to blame for intelligence failures leading to early Israeli losses, Nattiv seeks to present a Meir who, despite a tough veneer, was plagued by doubt and anxiety. Also illness: The chain-smoking leader was undergoing secret treatments for lymphoma.
Meir resigned in 1974 amid continued fallout from the war, despite having been cleared of direct responsibility for intelligence failures. She died four years later, at age 80.
Nattiv, who now lives in the United States, spoke about Meir, Mirren, and what he was trying to accomplish with “Golda.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AP: You’ve spoken of the “myth” of Golda versus the reality. What’s the reality you were seeking to convey?
NATTIV: First, Golda was the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur War. It was really easy to blame her in Israel for all the faults of her commanders. She took the blame and she resigned while everybody else was like, Teflon. So I feel her name was drenched with bad public opinion. She resigned and she just went to the drain of history. But 10 years ago, when secret (war) protocols came out, we understood there’s another narrative to what happened.
AP: A woman taking the blame while the men around her did not. Do you think her gender played a role in how things played out?
NATTIV: Oh, 100%, if she was not a woman it would have ended totally differently. Look at all the leaders that are not taking responsibility and they’re not resigning … or they’re coming back. But this was like, no, we would never have (this) woman again. It’s definitely a misogynist point of view.
AP: You show a woman who was plagued by doubt, anxiety, and sadness. Was this a side the public knew?
NATTIV: Not at all. Listen, I was born into this war. But I didn’t know anything about Golda. Because no one told us anything. I didn’t see her as human. She was an image. She was a photo on (currency), and now (her name) is an ice cream chain. So this movie is not only telling her story in the war, it is showing a character, not just a shallow image.
NATTIV: Nicholas Martin wrote the script. I was competing with other directors. When I read the script, it was 80% war movie and 20% Golda. And my pitch was, ‘Hey, let’s, let’s change the balance here. It should be 80% Golda and 20% war.’ My pitch was basically to make a war movie without a drop of blood. Bring the war into the room, like Golda experienced it. She couldn’t go to the front, she was old and sick. And so she stayed there very isolated and experienced the war through sound bites.
AP: How did Golda Meir’s family members feel about the film? And about Helen Mirren?
NATTIV: It was Gideon Meir, her grandson, who said to me, ‘I see Helen as my grandmother. I see her as Bubbe.’ And when I met her, in my living room in the middle of the pandemic, we sat and spoke for three hours and I felt that I’m talking to my mom, and to someone who really understood the meaning of what it means to be Golda, what it means to be Israeli. She toured the country when she was 29, she volunteered at a kibbutz and picked tomatoes and she really had this year of experience in Israel.
AP: What qualities about Mirren as an actor do you think made her effective?
NATTIV: First of all, she’s one of the best actors of our time. It helps! But also: her humor, her emotions, her intelligence, her strength and her humanity. These five layers, Helen brought to Golda, and Golda had that.
AP: You in Jerusalem. What kind of feedback have you gotten from Israelis?
NATTIV: The main discussion is, who was in charge of what happened? Some people say, ‘Hey, she’s the prime minister, right? She’s in charge. She needs to take the blame. It doesn’t matter if the commanders were failing her.’ Some say, ‘No, the new narrative, the new protocols say she didn’t do any wrong, you know, she saved us (by securing) the shipments from the United States, the planes and weapons (through her talks with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played by Liev Schreiber). So, there’s a debate about the responsibility. There will always be this debate.