The Gatekeepers

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.



NEXT: The Core


The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

The Taking of Pelham 123

Even in a crowd, John Travolta stands out.

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, Victor Gojcaj, Ramon Rodriguez, Aunjanue Ellis, Gary Basaraba, John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Kaluzhasky. Directed by Tony Scott.

We never know what awaits us when we walk out our front door every morning. Maybe it will be a good day, maybe a bad one. Maybe it will be an extraordinary day.

New York subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) is having a bad day. He’s been demoted from a management position for the New York Transit Authority to dispatching trains because of the suspicion that he took bribes. He has to put up with the abuse from a nasty mid-level manager (Rispoli) and the stress of the upcoming trial hangs over him like a cloud.

A strange voice comes over the microphone for the train Pelham 123 where his buddy, Jerry Pollard (Basaraba) should be. It’s a man calling himself Ryder (Travolta) informing him that he and a group of armed men have taken the train and are demand a $10 million ransom to be delivered in an hour. After that, one passenger will be executed for every minute the ransom is overdue.

The mayor (Gandolfini), a lame duck going through a marital scandal of his own, turns out to be remarkably helpful and tolerant, not at all the way New York mayors have been portrayed onscreen these days. A patient hostage negotiator (Turturro) tries to help, but Ryder and Garber have formed a strange connection. As time ticks down and the city races against the clock to save the hostages, a relationship forms between Ryder and Garber, which will inevitably lead to a showdown that only one will walk away from.

Based on a 1974 movie starring Walter Matthau (as Garber) and Robert Shaw (as Ryder) – itself based on a John Godey novel – Pelham reunites director Scott and Washington, who have also done Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Déjà vu to name a few. Whereas Matthau was rumpled, cynical and tough, Washington is basically a good-hearted heroic sort who made a mistake and is paying for it. While Shaw was icy and cool, Travolta is loud, angry and not very different from his character in Broken Arrow.

Perhaps it was a mistake, but I watched the 1974 original the night before I saw the remake. Whereas the original was gritty and realistic, the new one is sleek and modern. The 1974 edition had a loud, abrasive jazz score; the 2009 version is more traditionally scored. The first Pelham was low-tech and relied on characterization and tension for its thrills; the second uses digital effects and bigger car crashes to set the tone (although the 1974 version’s iconic car crash was quite elegant).

So is the first version better than this one? I think so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. They are definitely different movies meant to appeal to different audiences. Some of the twists in the first Pelham were telegraphed whereas I have to admit that wasn’t the case in the new one. Director Scott is a veteran action director and while this isn’t going to be regarded as one of his best, it’s still solid and extremely watchable. The problem I have here is that he often uses stylized camera tricks such as slow-mo helicopter travelling shots, or cameras that spiral around their subjects. It’s annoying and unnecessary. Washington and Travolta are both dependable performers and while you don’t get the sense of their character’s soul as much as you might like, I’d rather see these two in mediocre performances than a lot of other actors at their best.

This is definitely a Hollywood action film, with all that is good and bad about the genre. If you like that sort of thing (and I do), I guarantee you’ll go away entertained. If you prefer thrillers to action movies, you might do better to rent the original than see this. This movie won’t blow you out of the water, but it will accomplish what a lot of movies fail to do – it won’t make you regret plopping down the ten bucks to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: A slick Hollywood action movies with some very nice scenes. Washington and Travolta aren’t at the top of their game, but their game is such that even a sub-par performance by either is worth checking out. Gandolfini makes a great mayor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken in the action movie genre. There is more brawn than brain to this movie. Scott succumbs to “look-ma-I’m-directing” disease.

FAMILY VALUES: Some blue language, a couple of cold-blooded killings but otherwise suitable for older kids..  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first name of Denzel Washington’s character was changed from Zachary to Walter in honor of Walter Matthau, who played the role in the original film.