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The Gatekeepers - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Gatekeepers
Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

The Gatekeepers is about as straightforward as it gets when it comes to documentaries: a majority of the film is talking-head interviews with all six surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Isaeli internal security service agency. Perhaps more to break the visual monotony than anything, this is interspersed with archival footage of historical bombings and civil unrest, dating back to the Six Day War in 1967. But the point here is simply to watch these six guys sit and reflect on their time working with the agency.

Perhaps the most poignant moment is when one of them admits that only after being retired did he have time to really reflect on the morality of his job, and it turned him into "a bit of a leftist." It's pretty clear that "leftist" is not something anyone would have called these guys while they headed the agency.

That said, this film really brings moral ambiguity to the forefront: you really have no sense of the complicated nature of the decisions these guys had to make, in the thick of it. Very early on we get a sense of the discord between national security and politics: "Politicians prefer binary options," one of them states. Do it, or don't do it? A lot of this very much hits close to home, with its talk of "the war on terror" -- something that has been going on in Israel since far before 9/11. We're all conditioned to think of terrorism in black and white terms, but fighting it is by definition wading through shades of grey.

These guys, sitting in front of the cameras now, all seem to have a firm grasp on why the Palestinians hate the Israelis so much -- and even what might at least take steps toward appeasing them (not least of which, of course, would be a Palestinian state). But their jobs were never to make policy; they were to fight, and attempt to prevent, terrorist attacks. This movie goes through several of the more historically notable incidents, including the heartbreaking turn where Shin Bet actually arrests several Jewish terrorists plotting to bomb Palestinian buses -- only to have them all released by the Israeli justice system soon thereafter. Of course no such thing would ever happen to Palestinian terrorists -- although there is special attention paid to an early-eighties controversy when Israeli army beat Palestinian bus hijackers to death.

On the whole, The Gatekeepers is undeniably fascinating, but I'm not sure it actually offers much in the way of new insight. It certainly provided me, as a viewer pretty uneducated about the Middle East, with previously unknown details -- but details are not insight. If nothing else, the film merely underscores how the Shin Bet is in a lose-lose situation. It would be interesting to see a companion piece about Israeli politics, because here it's the politicians who are painted as the bad guys, or at least the most short-sighted. These former heads of Shin Bet, while clearly dealing with a great deal of moral dilemma (although one says: in fighting terrorism, forget about morality), come across as victims of their positions. They took these jobs, after all.

To the credit of director Dror Moreh, the film does not shy away from challenging them. More than once, these guys admit that their counter-attacks were ineffective, then offer the knowledge that Palestinian terrorist attacks would have happened anyway as justification. There's a clear lapse in logic there. But, as we all know, this is a centuries-old conflict with no clear or simple solution. The Gatekeepers effectively spends 101 minutes clarifying why that is.

Avraham Shalom discusses his time as head of Shin Bet, 1981-1986, in THE GATEKEEPERS.

Overall: B+

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