It is our stories that define our humanity, our connections with one another, our places in history. Stories, as they are passed among storytellers in intimate exchanges and then codified for exchanges across generations, become the foundation of myth and legend. But, at best, stories matter when they remain rooted in the voices of those closest to the experiences, because that is when the human element shines through.
Richard Trank, the co-writer (with rabbi Marvin Hier) and director of The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers, presents the history contained in former Israeli prime ministerial aide/speechwriter and ambassador Yehuda Avner’s bestselling book, The Prime Ministers, as a series of intimate conversations from the perspective of a man seated at the right hand of greatness. And somehow that greatness gets scaled down with its human core exposed, but it is never diminished.
What we see, and more importantly hear, is a recounting of the singular moments that tested the resolve of a collection of leaders charged with protecting and molding this fledgling nation fighting for its right to exist. That’s not hyperbole, not the 140-character narrative rushed into the public court of opinion in all caps we’re so familiar with today. This is a more nuanced and thoughtful examination, in the moment, fraught with tension and the sense that action must result from these considerations and those actions will be reflected and dissected long after the deeds are done.
What emerges then for viewers is a moving archive starting with black and white newsreel footage and then transitioning into grainy faded color with streaks of imperfection crisscrossing the frames.
But these images, what Avner recalls at one point as “the dream” and later “the miracle” of building “Utopia in Galilee,” undergo a transfer tantamount to a loving restoration into an extra-vivid dimension of life, thanks to the voices and stories Trank and Hier pull out of Avner’s text.
Avner speaks for himself. And notice, I did not say that Avner provides narration, because that would not come close to expressing the depth of his contribution here. Avner speaks from the standpoint of one who both observed and participated in history, and he was keenly aware enough to step outside himself and the moments to capture and document the emotional and psychological details. How many of us would be so astute, I wonder.
And when he shares his recollections of conversations with the great men and women of those times (Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin), Trank wisely casts performers to give life to those voices. There is a teasing tinge of recognition for the audience as Sandra Bullock intones the words of Meir or Christoph Waltz injects sharp inflections into the speechifying of Begin. And while Michael Douglas captures the quiet intensity of Rabin, Leonard Nimoy breathes life into Eshkol, a figure largely unknown to Americans of later generations.
But special mention should be made of Bullock’s efforts here because most of the footage of Meir presents this woman as a Godmother, not the small “g” type, the unassuming grandmother waiting in the wings. No, Meir was, from the start, a Godmother who understood that the impact of her decisions would bear much weight and responsibility. We fret, here in the United States, over the idea of women assuming the mantel of power on the global stage, but we would be wise to pay attention to Meir’s example, and thanks to Bullock, we can hear this great woman’s words and feel her shattering the social and cultural barriers. To call this a performance, and a great one at that, misses the point, but if it serves to bring the audience in, so be it.
The Pioneers charts Avner’s time working with Prime Ministers Eshkol and Meir, along with Rabin, during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador and reveals new insights into the Six-Day War, the evolution of the relationship between Israel and the United States, early terrorism in the Middle East, the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. A few months from now, a companion installment — The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers — will arrive, picking up the historic line and bringing it forward, through Avner’s service under Prime Ministers Rabin, Begin and Shimon Peres.
This is not just the history of Israel, but the 20th century through the eyes of a man who was able to see greatness up close and personal. This is as good and as human as it gets. (Not Rated) Grade: A
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