‘The Gatekeepers’ is a Deeply Necessary Film if Not a Great One

Here is our 2013 review of the Oscar-nominated documentary from Dror Moreh.
The Gatekeepers Documentary Poster
Sony Pictures Classics
By  · Published on February 2nd, 2013

In a moment of almost chilling candor in the latter half of The Gatekeepers, Ami Ayalon invokes the concept of the “Banality of Evil,” perhaps without intending the full symbolic weight of such a reference. The former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, from 1996 to 2000 uses these words to explain how after enough time on the job, the killing of large numbers of people loses its psychological burden. Hannah Arendt meant something a bit different when she coined it in 1963 as a subtitle of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Yet one cannot deny the potency of a director of Shin Bet using a term to describe his own organization that was originally used to explain the motivation of a Nazi convicted and hanged by Israel for crimes against humanity.

Ayalon’s interpretation of Shin Bet’s history, however, is not the only one to emerge. Abraham Shalom, director of the agency from 1981 to 1986, muddies the waters by explaining that there was simply “no strategy, only tactics.” Shin Bet operated without needing to think about morality, he argues, because the focus was on counter-terrorism rather than a peace process with the Palestinians. The politicians, Prime Ministers in particular, were responsible for quandaries. He and his successors, on the other hand, should be blamed for their technical mistakes but not for the ethical problems inherent in many of their failures. Whether this is true, or simply a hollow rhetorical defense, is the central question of Dror Moreh’s documentary.

Problems like these are not easy to solve, and Moreh has not made it particularly easy for himself. The scope of The Gatekeepers is vast, stretching from 1967 well into the 21st century. It’s the many-headed hydra version of Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, built from six different perspectives rather than one. Moreh has interviewed every living former director of Shin Bet, all six of them. They are brilliant tacticians and talented politicians, each one with more than enough baggage to fill a film of its own. And while they have come to this project with honest intentions and an impressive frankness, it’s not easy to convince embattled figures to come clean about the decision-making process behind their most public mistakes.

The rhetoric of these men, especially those with the least remorse, is the troubling core of the film. When faced with the scandal of the Kav 300 affair, in which Shin Bet members brutally killed two Arab bus hijackers immediately following the resolution of the incident, which happened on his watch, Shalom redirects the conversation to the role of politicians in the premeditated decision to execute. He refers the blaming of Shin Bet as “abandoning the wounded in the field,” the wounded being the decision makers at the security agency.

Along with Avi Dichter (director 2000–2005) and Yaakov Peri (director 1988–1994), Shalom has a tendency to make rhetorical points about the irrelevance of morality and the philosophical impossibility of ethical inquiries in the pursuit of Israeli security. The wide variety of logical misdirects these men can muster is borderline Rabbinic, answering questions with only more open-ended questions. And they always begin to blame the politicians.

Moreh therefore had a complex choice to make in the construction of the film. Does he endorse these rationales or undermine them? On the one hand, he follows suit in the critique of Prime Ministers of Israel who haven’t treated the possibility of Palestinian statehood seriously. The Gatekeepers is full of footage of Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and others shifting papers in their offices and staring sternly off screen, implicitly refusing to bring about a productive two-state solution. Yet Moreh never really addresses the fact that, in spite of constantly blaming political figures, these men are essentially politicians themselves.

However, Moreh’s reliance only on testimony from these six occasionally undermines the possibility of truly interrogating the history of the Shin Bet. Some of the best moments in The Gatekeepers come from Shalom’s final re-evaluation of his own mistakes. Yet his privileged hindsight is also brought in to criticize later holders of the office, as if his arguments weren’t deeply problematic only five minutes before. When the men insist that they couldn’t possibly have predicted the First Intifada, Moreh doesn’t examine the implications of this sort of lack of foresight. It is simply too difficult to offer a nuanced approach to so much in a single 95-minute film.

Thankfully, Moreh finally begins to shine as he moves into the 1990s. Carmi Gillon’s (director 1995–1996) deeply emotional testimony around the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 is a stunning turning point. Relying heavily on the words of Ayalon and Yuval Diskin (director 2005–2011), Moreh then focuses on the growing sense within the Shin Bet that the most basic goals of the agency have been wrong since the 1960s.

Operating entirely as an organization of tactics rather than strategy has only led to more violence and disaster. The film itself begins to wake up in its last half hour, confrontationally exhibiting footage of mass Palestinian protests in response to the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 just as Dichter is insisting that killing enough terrorists will solve the problem. Moreh also keeps coming back to computer screens from which the Shin Bet launches the rockets for its targeted assassinations, perhaps the most visceral example of power possessed by the agency.

In the end, a grand historical perspective comes to the fore. I won’t rob the final words of Shalom and Ayalon of their potency by quoting them here, but I will say that the final moments of The Gatekeepers may silence the most opinionated and hawkish of crowds. Moreh manages to extract a fiery message after all.

Yet strangely, the necessity of this wake-up call to the Israeli military establishment is at odds with the very scope of Moreh’s film. It would be sharper as the examination of a single figure, perhaps the tenure and reflections of only Shalom or Ayalon with the focus of The Fog of War. Paradoxically, it would be more robust writ-large in the spirit of The Sorrow and the Pity. As it stands, however, The Gatekeepers is more necessary a documentary than it is a great one.

The Upside: It’s early yet, but the interviews in The Gatekeepers may be the most interesting and compelling you’ll see all year.

The Downside: A number of moments desperately need context, but with only the testimony of these six men, none is given.

On the Side: The animations in the film were done by French visual effects company Mac Guff, which also worked on Despicable Me and The Lorax.