Two films that examine the Israeli State, Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” and Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers”, may not be the most unbiased or educational efforts on the tenuous subject, but they do serve as bracing examples of how Hollywood and the Jewish community themselves may view their long, arduous struggle for a homeland. Seeing them together, in quick succession, doesn’t make me a Jewish state expert, but both films give me a circumference of knowledge I didn’t have before.
Released in 1960 and starring Paul Newman, “Exodus” is a bit long in the tooth, but completely justified of its almost four hour running time due to the swiftness it gives its subject… that being Leon Uris’s praised novel. Beginning immediately after World War 2 when Jewish refugees were being sorted around the globe, “Exodus” intensifies its scope on the island of Cyprus where a Haganah officer named Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) successfully maneuvers a large group of refugees out of Cyprus and into Jerusalem. From there, the film focuses on the uneasy relationship between the new Jewish settlers and the large Arab contingency after 1950. Also part of the story are Dov Landeau (Sal Mineo) as an impressionable and violent young man who joins the Irgun (a violent offshoot of the Haganah) and carries out attacks towards Arabs. This being Hollywood, there’s also the development of a love story between Newman and visiting American widow Eva Marie Saint who not only finds herself falling in love with Palestine, but also the customs and ways of life there. Strikingly, the most moving relationship in the film doesn’t belong to Newman and Saint, but the younger, tragic romance between Mineo and Jill Haworth as Karen, a fellow refugee.
Comments on Jewish diplomacy aside- and the film and book have often been praised as very pro-Zionist for good reasons- “Exodus” is just good old fashioned filmmaking. I haven’t delved very deeply into Preminger’s full oeuvre, but “Exodus” is a very patient, subtle work. Filmed in 70MM (and boy would I love to see it in the ration on the big screen today), the images are given room to breathe. Long dialogue scenes are often relegated to a single take and characters are placed at the left or right edges of the frame with plenty of space out to the side where the eye can roam on the atmosphere of the room. One scene in particular, as Sal Mineo’s character is interrogated by a group of men and probably sealed his awards run that given year, is directed with grace and precision, bringing in elements of film noir and silent cinema. Visually, “Exodus” is a treat and one of those rare instances where bloated Hollywood got it right.
At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers”, an austere and clinical documentary that interviews six different men who at one time or another were heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the CIA or NSA. Through straight-forward talking head interviews and stock footage, “The Gatekeepers” buries itself headlong into the messy, complicated and bureaucratic manners of not only protecting Israel’s individualism but the sacrifice of human collateral.
The six men speak on a variety of topics like true politicians, rarely blinking, and refusing to admit mistakes. Moreh’s documentary is fascinating for not only the way in which the military heads justify their actions, but their subjective and inside view of a nation’s political swamps. Like “Exodus”, “The Gatekeepers” may not be the most historically correct aspect of the Jewish chapter in history, but it’s one that deserves its own slot. If Uris and Preminger’s vision of Israel ended on the precarious image of a line of military trucks heading into an unknown battle, Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” is the logical extension of that image where violence and counter action are the norms of everyday life… and one that’s still being fought today.