"The Gatekeepers" is an Oscar-nominated documentary about the recent history of Israel as told by six former heads of the Shin Bet, the secretive Israeli security service.
If your eyes started drooping midway through the previous sentence, I wouldn’t blame you. True, that plot synopsis sounds more like a special episode of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" or "Meet the Press" than something you’d spend $10 to see on a weekend night. But thankfully, "The Gatekeepers" isn’t simply dry talking heads. Director Dror Moreh’s fascinating subjects provide surprisingly open and personal insights into the Middle East and the moral, ethical grey zone that is national security.
The six men – Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Avraham Shalom – take the audience through the difficult decisions and moments that haunted their terms in Shin Bet – and still haunt some of them now. The film hurdles through a massive laundry list of events – the 300 bus incident that ended with two executed terrorists, the assassinations of Yitzhak Rabin and Yahya Ayyash and many, many more – but never too fast and at the cost of the information or its subjects. It’s a surprisingly inviting glance into an insider’s world.
Some of them reflect on the "unnatural power" they had in Shin Bet to decide between either taking action or standing pat, both of which would usually come with deadly consequences. They’re tough men with equally tough minds, but their faces clearly wear the wearying toll of the unpredictable and chaotic conflict. Peri reflects at one point that "the moments end up etched deep inside you."
Ayalon, the head of Shin Bet in the late ’90s, laments near the middle of "The Gatekeepers" that "they wanted more security and got more terrorists." The documentary ends with disappointed comment that they "win every battle but lose the war." Their world involves hard questions with no easy answers, and even a successful mission comes with its share of failure.
They often don’t see eye-to-eye either, especially with Shalom, the head of Shin Bet throughout much of the ’80s. He was in charge of handling the 300 bus hijacking – which Moreh gives an entire chapter in "The Gatekeepers" – and the controversial aftermath that inevitably pushed him into resignation. At one point, he tells the camera to he had to "forget about morality" during his time in charge of Shin Bet. Even the other interview subjects appear to think Shalom’s amoral stances bordered on dangerous.
Sometimes sitting down with some intriguing subjects, asking the right questions and letting the camera roll is the best approach. That’s exactly what Moreh does, allowing his subjects to tell their stories. There are realistic animations scattered throughout "The Gatekeepers" but the ominous images of computer screens and surveillance footage never overshadow the actual content. Instead, they create a haunting mood that matches the film’s moral struggles.
At first glance, "The Gatekeepers" may sound simply like news on the big screen, but it’s far better than that. It’s as informative as a journalistic piece but has the urgency, complexity and momentum of a thriller (it makes for a great companion piece to last year’s terrific "Zero Dark Thirty"). Moreh provides a remarkable insider’s look into the struggle for peace in the Middle East, but the costs to the country and to these men’s souls sound eerily close to home.
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