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Ann Hornaday reviews ‘The Gatekeepers’

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In “The Gatekeepers,” Dror Moreh’s shattering documentary about Israel’s famed secret service agency, Shin Bet, six former leaders of the organization reflect with unprecedented candor on their work battling external and internal terrorism. Imagine former CIA chiefs speaking candidly about their successes, failures, misgivings and political realpolitik after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 or during the Cold War. “The Gatekeepers,” which will compete for an Academy Award on Sunday, packs that kind of wallop, a sobering but welcome dose of honesty regarding issues and events that have otherwise been shrouded in secrecy and overheated rhetoric.

Focusing on Shin Bet’s activities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War in 1967, Moreh begins with grainy images of what looks like surveillance footage as Yuval Diskin, who led Shin Bet from 2005 until 2011, explains that “as head of Shin Bet, you learn that politicians prefer binary options. They don’t like having three or four options. They want you to tell them zero or one. Go or don’t go.”

But as Diskin goes on to note, intelligence gathering is all about shades of gray, degrees of subtlety and nuance that, to hear him and his colleagues tell it, have been consistently dismissed by most Israeli prime ministers, whom they accuse of ignoring the Palestinian territories and the peace process in favor of kicking an increasingly explosive can down the road. One of the most disheartening messages of “The Gatekeepers” is how many times Israeli leaders squandered opportunities to end the occupation of the West Bank or allowed illegal settlements despite a virtually guaranteed violent response. “What’s the difference between Golda Meir and [Menachem] Begin?” asks Avraham Shalom, who directed the agency from 1980 until 1986. “Nothing. He didn’t visit the Arabs. She didn’t, either.”

Shalom, the most senior member among Moreh’s subjects, also is the most feisty; he’s the only man not wearing a crisp blue shirt that helps define the sleek, commanding aesthetic of “The Gatekeepers.” And he’s at the center of one of the film’s most painful episodes, when two Palestinian captives were killed while in Shin Bet custody. “It was a lynching,” says Ami Ayalon, who took over the directorship when Shalom was forced to resign. “We killed a terrorist whose hands were tied, who was no longer a threat to us — by what right?”

With lucidity and a scrupulously un-hysterical tone — helped by stunning reenactments and computer-generated animation — “The Gatekeepers” engages issues that have ramifications far outside Israel. The subjects’ frank self-examination about torture and targeted assassinations, for example, ring with cautionary relevance to policymakers in the post-9/11 United States. For the most part, though, “The Gatekeepers” is a dispiriting chronicle of how otherwise rational actors were continually undermined and betrayed by politicians who cynically exploited the Arab-Israeli dispute and domestic factionalism for their own ends.

Using archival photographs and seamless CGI technology, Moreh re-creates with white-knuckled accuracy an episode when the agency “took out” a notorious leader of Hamas — the Palestinian militant organization formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement — using a booby-trapped cellphone. (Shin Bet operatives, a director notes with a small smile, are “experts at making small appliances with lots of power.”) He also revisits the organization’s most grievous episode: when it failed to prevent the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Often documentaries are dismissed for being solely composed of “talking heads.” But with Moreh’s exemplary visual illustrations and the talking heads he has persuaded to speak so openly, “The Gatekeepers” is never less than engrossing, enlightening and profoundly unsettling. The first must-see movie of the year is a riveting espionage thriller that just happens to be true.

★★★★

PG-13. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row and Landmark’s
E Street Cinema. Contains violent content and disturbing images. 97 minutes.

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