Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion aptly called his minister (and eventual successor) Golda Meir "the only man in the Cabinet." A former seamstress, chicken farmer and mother of two from Milwaukee by way of Kiev, Golda was a chain-smoking juggernaut with the shoulders of a linebacker—the type of politician who'd gush that a warplane was a "huge, beautiful monster." This tribute by screenwriter William Gibson ran for 493 performances when it starred Tovah Feldshuh, the longest one-woman show in Broadway history. Here, it stars Valerie Harper, whose Jewish roots trace back to her role as Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Harper's wigs are so cheap, it's clear Gibson is hoarding the revenues.)
The stage production was uncomfortable trusting in a stark retelling of Golda's decision to drop atomic bombs on Cairo and Damascus. Kissinger's 11th hour intervention was dramatic enough—it did prevent total nuclear warfare—but the show tacked on gun blasts and zooming airplanes, causing The Times to dismiss it as a "cheesily overwrought production, which subscribes to Jerry Bruckheimer's blow-the-morons-out-of-the-joint theory of entertainment."
Film director Jeremy Kagan magnifies the mistake. The brink of annihilation looks like a low-budget music video. Golda, in her funeral power suits and orthopedic shoes, stands before a spasmodic blue screen that shifts between soldiers, streetscapes, gazebos, pastels, finger paintings, pink tanks and an irritating cellist. When Golda insists she wasn't just a granny who made chicken soup, a granny making chicken soup pops up behind her. Worse, the tension, atmosphere and hushed strength of a solo performance is treated like a liability. Kagan doubts our imagination and our attention span; when Harper plays other characters, multiple Harpers crowd the screen. In husband Morris' proposal scene, five Harpers elbow their way into the frame—narrator Golda, teenage Golda, Morris and her parents—all curiously dressed more or less identically with the odd pair of spectacles.
Underneath all the frippery is an earnest, if underdeveloped Big Question: Should Israel always come first? For Golda, it ultimately does, even if that means sacrificing family and freedom (including other people's). Forging a country demands monomania. To Gibson's credit, he doesn't force us to agree with her politics, only to understand how they were shaped from her childhood persecution by pogroms to the concentration camps she lists off mournfully.
In one exchange with her increasingly estranged husband, she asks "What's wrong with idealism?"
"What's wrong with the real world?" he counters.
"Everything," she replies.
That's conviction that can either raise or raze a civilization.
Cast: Valerie Harper
Director: Jeremy Kagan
Screenwriter: William Gibson
Producers: Tony Cacciotti and David Steiner
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: October 10, 2007 NY, October 19 LA