The Gatekeepers is an astonishingly boring film that you should probably see. Astonishingly boring because people make interesting documentaries about such boring shit—gun control, penguins, spelling bees, babies, the Buena Vista Social Club—that it has become part of the rhetorical strategy embedded in every documentary to presume your lack of interest and turn it back: Whoa, did I just watch Penguins flirt for three hours? It must have been amazing. Humans can watch documentaries about nearly anything. The first preview shown at the theater when I went to see Gatekeepers in New York was a documentary about the song Hava Nagila. There were a lot of Lower East Side Jews in attendance, and even they would walk out before the end of Gatekeepers. It was unclear why they were leaving. Boredom? Politics? Some of them would fall asleep. I would fall briefly asleep.
The problem might be that the setup is just so good: Or the setup the film claims is good, at least. At the start, on-screen text and ominous ambient music that give the feel less of a political documentary than the menu screen of a modern war X-Box game, explain that “The Shin Bet is the intelligence agency charged with defending Israel from terrorism. For the last thirty years, only six men have led the organization. They have never spoken about their work.”
The trailer makes it even more dramatic, changing the line “they have never spoken about their work” to “They have never been interviewed. Until now.”
What will they say? Nothing you didn’t expect, is the truth. Retired defense chiefs and security officials have been criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for some time now, on the peace process, security, and especially Iran: “As Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, routinely speak of an imminent ‘existential threat’ from Tehran comparable to that of the Nazis in 1939,” David Remnick wrote last year in the New Yorker, “and warn that the Iranian nuclear program is fast approaching a ‘zone of immunity,’ a growing number of leading intelligence and military officials, active and retired, have made plain their opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike. They include the Army Chief of Staff, the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, the heads of the two main intelligence agencies, the Mossad (Israel’s C.I.A.) and Shin Bet (its F.B.I.), President Shimon Peres, and members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, including the Intelligence Minister.”
The early parts of the movie deal with Israel’s land grab after the 1967 war that brought occupation to the West Bank and Gaza. This part is mostly told by Avraham Shalom, born in Vienna in 1928 and head of the Shin Bet from 1980-1986. “To put it cynically,” he says, “Luckily for us terrorism increased.” Point being there was a boom market for security professionals. “So we forgot about a Palestinian state.” Shalom is the center of the film. The other gatekeepers are all mildly conflicted about their work, as you’d expect them to be. Shalom, who resigned after ordering the killing of two men detained after highjacking a bus, is not. “I didn’t want to see two more terrorists on trial,” he says, and that’s that.
What follows is a six-part recitation of the Israeli national tragedy, from Occupation to terrorism to a more brutal occupation to intifada to Oslo to hope to the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, to intifada to Ariel Sharon and settling finally on a truculent and paranoid little democracy that has accepted constant, low-level conflict as an alternative to peace. And that will require gatekeepers like these men forever.
The film identifies the Rabin assassination in 1995 as the moment when this fate was written. The capture of Israel’s politics by a militarist right might have been prevented, the second intifada might not have happened. Carmi Gillon, who was Shin Bet chief when the organization discovered but failed to act to prevent the assassination, is particularly distraught. But everyone laments what happened next. The IDF is a “brutal occupation force,” “We’ve become cruel.” The surprise of the movie is supposed to be that these men would say things like that.
In truth nothing about the movie offers quite as much as gets promised. I don’t, for example, see how it’s possible to claim these heads of the group have never spoken about their work when four of them went public with very similar concerns under the government of Ariel Sharon, in 2003. The level of craft is very low, the video-game aesthetic persisting throughout the whole movie. The gatekeepers themselves are wonderful to watch move, they’re mostly stunningly fit for their ages, but aside from Shalom they’re not very engaging. One of the consequences of the professionalization of the security field since World War II has been to turn the men who operate security states in places like the United States and Israel into tough sorts of functionaries. The heads of the Shin Bet who came after Shalom don’t appear here to be men that would be very exciting to be around, outside of the job title.
Which is why you should probably see the movie. Because these are men brought up with the quasi-morality of the security professional. They mostly don’t have much trouble calling their enemies “terrorists,” without qualification. They defend targeted assassinations. They ran an organization that took great pains to give moral cover for its actions, trying to minimize “collateral.” The film describes an episode in which the entire to leadership of Hamas escaped an airstrike because the decision had been taken to use a quarter-ton bomb in place of a full-ton strike that might have killed civilians. A structure exists, in other words, to allow these men to feel like they did their jobs as best they could and that they have nothing to feel guilty about. And they do not, for the most part, seem to be men who were born to think deeply. They don’t say very interesting things. They seem to be parroting each other sometimes.
The effect of this is unexpectedly powerful. Shalom—who predates the professionalization—aside, these men weren’t made to be mavericks. There’s something artistic that happens in the end, as they try to find a language to describe their disappointment not just in Netanyahu’s government—Netanyahu and his policies figure far less in the movie than the reviews and hype had led me to expect—but in decades of failure to act with compassion, failures of moral leadership, the rise of an insane right wing that dictates policies they themselves have acted out. They aren’t visionaries. “Talk” is everyone’s prescription, which is a dull and useless piece of advice for a country which at some point is going to have to confront the fact that a great portion of its politicians and populace have no demonstrable interest in peace. Someday someone is going to have to figure out why and how to do something about that. These gatekeepers seem as baffled as any European diplomat by it. But they at least know that there will have to be a reckoning, and seeing it makes you wish we had a few security professionals in the United States with half their character and moral intelligence. The film ends with a line that could describe the last twelve and perhaps fifty years of American foreign policy as well as it does Israel’s: “We win every battle,” Ami Alayon, Shin Bet chief from 1996-2000, says. “But we lose the war.”
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