‘The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers’ movie review: A front-row seat for Israeli history


Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, left, visited President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch in January 1968, a story recounted in “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers.” (LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto)
March 6

Yehuda Avner — a speechwriter, diplomat and political adviser under Israeli prime ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres — had such a front-row seat to history that he had to write a book about it. Titled “The Prime Ministers,” his 2010 memoir has now been made into two films, the first of which, subtitled “The Pioneers,” began hitting theaters this year.

It deals mainly with Eshkol’s and Meir’s years in office and Rabin’s service as U.S. ambassador. The second installment, subtitled “Soldiers and Peacemakers,” is expected to be released later this year.

Listening to Avner narrate “Pioneers,” it’s easy to imagine why anyone would think the book would make a natural movie. Avner is a gifted, if slightly florid, raconteur, and “The Pioneers” is framed by his silver-tongued reminiscences. One can imagine sitting in a room with him for hours — maybe even days, as in the case of the filmmakers — and being regaled with dramatic stories of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War and listening to him name-check President Lyndon B. Johnson, Israeli politician Abba Eban, Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and a host of other significant 20th-century figures.

The historical narrative of “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers” may be an intimate and personal one, but it offers many insights into the religious and geopolitical causes of today’s continuing Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s a gift to be able to pick the brain of someone who remembers so far back.

Now in his 80s, Avner still seems sharp as he quotes dialogue that happened decades ago and rarely qualifies them with “to the best of my recollection.” This is, perhaps, less surprising when you consider that he was originally brought into government as a translator and note-taker for the powerful.

But what makes a good yarn and possibly an important book does not necessarily make for a consistently great or engaging movie.

“The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers” is hampered by a static structure that relies too heavily on a single voice, even one as interesting as Avner’s.

Alternating between shots of him talking and archival film footage and photographic stills, the film manages only occasionally to break the monotony by dramatic — if slightly goofy — readings by famous actors. Leonard Nimoy plays Eshkol; Sandra Bullock, Meir. Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz chime in as Rabin and Begin, but their contributions come across as a bit stiff and do little to alleviate the tonal drone that bogs down what is otherwise a fascinating examination of Israel’s roots.

The Jerusalem Post has called Avner’s book “the ultimate insider’s account,” and that certainly fits with the movie, too. The characterization, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword. “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers” is filled with tasty nuggets of personal and political history that few others were privy to. But they’re presented in such a bland stew that they eventually grow tedious.

★★

Unrated. At the AMC Hoffman Center. Contains nothing objectionable. 115 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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