The “other” Oscar-nominated feature about a war on terror, Dror Moreh’s documentary The Gatekeepers proves more intellectually engaging than Hollywood’s Zero Dark Thirty, and at least as unsettling. Inspired by the work of Errol Morris—most specifically, The Fog of War, with its confessional interview of former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—Moreh pursued the participation of former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Remarkably, six of these men agreed, for the first time, to explain their actions, discuss their successes, and air their regrets.
Obviously men who have run the Shin Bet will be both canny enough and skilled enough to say just what they want, no more or less. Essentially the sole criticism of Moreh’s film (not coincidentally the same criticism leveled against The Fog of War) is that it gives the aging men a venue to couch their past actions in the best possible light and to burnish their legacies by explaining how they have, in hindsight, turned certain political corners. While that’s true, part of the surprise of The Gatekeepers is that these men don’t always dodge criticism, but even if all of them tried, Moreh wins simply by putting them in close-up and walking them through events, whether they be “successful” targeted assassinations, or failures to prevent the same (including the 1995 slaying of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) or other acts of terror.
It’s not hard to read between the lines of the comments here, when they’re not plainly damning to begin with (the eldest statesman, Avraham Shalom, comes off the worst, with political criticisms that also serve as attempted self-defenses: "In the war against terror, there is no morality"), to understand the horrifying, damning responsibilities—and the ultimately Sisyphean futility—of heading up an Israeli intelligence agency.
These intelligence operatives all have plenty of blood on their hands (Shalom, for example, struggles to contextualize the scandalous summary execution, on his orders, of two terrorists), but today they express a basically uniform point of view that decades of security policy have been misbegotten, the only satisfactory answer being concessions leading to a two-state solution. Absent such a commitment, both Palestinian and Jewish terrorists will control the conversation as, in a way, they do here.
Reportedly, The Gatekeepers consists of only two percent of the interview footage Moreh shot, which speaks to his rigorous approach to getting the goods. The sometimes slick visual approach, incorporating recreations of satellite surveillance and an animated photographer’s eye view of the 1984 debacle, can at times feel like overkill, but they also help to put what’s otherwise a series of talking heads in the game with other eye-catching top docs.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]