Film Review: ‘The Gatekeepers’ takes a complex look at fighting terrorism

The six former heads of Israel's Shin Bet as seen in "The Gatekeepers" Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
The six former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet as seen in “The Gatekeepers”
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Documentarian Dror Moreh was inspired by “The Fog of War,” Errol Morris’ famed interrogation of Robert McNamara, when it came to making “The Gatekeepers,” which sits down with six former heads of Israel’s feared and secretive security service Shin Bet. McNamara was cagey and defensive, whereas the sextet here are more forthright, if not remorseful. “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftie,” says Yaakov Peri, who fronted the organization from 1988 to 1994.

To paint these interviews as confessional about-faces, though, would be simplistic. “Forget about morality,” one of them charges when grilled about one particularly messy item on their CV. “In terrorism there is no morality.” The stories paint these six men as hard-asses who instilled fear, and sometimes respect, among Prime Ministers, the press, foes and other colleagues. But seen and heard today, they’re living testaments to man’s inherent complexity, not to mention approachable and lovable grandfather-types.

Avraham Shalom is painted as the agency’s most intimidating leader, under whose watch came the notorious “Bus 30″ incident, in which two bus hijackers were executed after being apprehended, leading to uproar and the resignation of Attorney-General Yitzhak Zamir. In the film, however, he’s a cuddly octogenarian, decked in plaid and suspenders. He’s still lucid, and his parting words impart pessimism for the future he helped shape.

Moreh’s style is Errol Morris-lite: There’s no “Interrotron,” the camera device Morris uses in which subjects comfortably stare into the lens. The film’s music is a low, steady throb, lending an air of menace and unease to a film that proves hard to pin down.
Despite being a film that’s critical of the war on terrorism — and, inevitably, Israel — “The Gatekeepers” is not so easily reduced to simple talking points. For every fit of self-criticism there’s a defense — not a kneejerk reaction, but one borne out of deep intellectual wrestling. None of the subjects are gung-ho-types, despite how they might have acted when younger, and they even call out the director for his occasional black-and-white moralizing. Anguishing over having killed civilians is one thing, but they even confess to staying up at night worrying about having killed terrorists. (3 out of 5 Globes)


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