We’ve had no shortage of rousing, triumphant, controversial political thrillers lately.
Like “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Gatekeepers,” from Israel, plunges us into the murk of conflict, terror and clandestine operations.
Like those dramas, director Dror Moreh’s film was also nominated for an Oscar. Unlike those two films, “The Gatekeepers” is a documentary. It is just as gripping and far more illuminating about the very un-sexy shades of gray facing those charged with preventing acts of terror.
Moreh reached out to the six men who’ve headed the Israeli security organization known as Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillion, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin. To his surprise, they agreed to talk. And what they had to say opens a door into the organization charged with Israel’s internal security.
Perhaps “door” isn’t the right word for much of what we learn. Instead, let’s borrow a notion from Shalom, who was the head of the agency from 1980 to 1986. He likens the collapse of negotiations with Palestinian leaders in the ’80s to chasing rabbits. Much here has the feeling of tumbling down a very dark rabbit hole indeed.
Shalom resigned when two bus hijackers were beaten after they were taken alive from the 300 bus from Tel Aviv. The film opens with aerial images from a targeted assassination. The most recent head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin (2005-2011), talks about the ways in which even a clean hit (i.e. right guy, no collateral damage) leaves a wound on one’s conscience.
Moreh provides chapter headings throughout, among them: “No Strategy Just Tactics,” “Forget About Morality,” “Our Own Flesh and Blood.”
“The Gatekeepers” deals with the increasing threat of violence from Israelis who often and vigorously supported the expansion of settlements and opposed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, in particular 1993’s Oslo Accord between PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, brokered by President Bill Clinton.
The first Intifada was an object lesson. “The Gatekeepers” shares much with Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning, 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” This movie, too, has a visual elegance that bumps it many aesthetic notches above a “talking head” documentary.
Yet it’s precisely those talking heads that make “The Gatekeepers” so fascinating. The level of candor here may not satisfy hard-liners of either stripe, but it can help viewers begin to formulate new questions about the philosophical, strategic and moral challenges of conflict, in particular “wars on terror.”