Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, The Gatekeepers is a movie about secrets. Secret agents. Secret missions. State secrets. Dirty secrets. This isn’t surprising given that it consists of interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s ultra-secret counterterrorism agency. Many secrets are revealed and examined in director Dror Moreh’s mind blowingly fine film and, if I have a quibble, it’s that he never reveals the most tantalizing secret of all: How the hell he pulled this off.
Think of today’s most shadowy American spymasters, spooks such as CIA bosses John Brennan, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and Michael Morell or the even shadowier people they report to-National Intelligence Directors like John Negroponte or David Gompert. Now try to picture them agreeing to spill the beans with unreserved candor on the most sensitive, controversial, borderline illegal things they’ve ever done behind a closed door. While being filmed. It simply doesn’t happen.
Except the former cinematographer-whose only other directing credit is for Sharon, a 2008 documentary about the Israeli prime minister-somehow made it happen and the result is must-see stuff for anyone whose interests include matters such as history, geopolitics and um, the survival of the human species.
These are princes of darkness. Angels of death. Watch a Bond film or a movie like Munich; these are the all-powerful puppetmasters of which the puppetmasters in those pictures are pale imitations. I flashed back to characters and scenarios from Zero Dark Thirty frequently as I watched Moreh’s meditation on the viscous cycle that is the war on terror and came away considering his, in many respects, the more honest, more relevant work.
Neither their names or faces will be familiar. Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin have never before been interviewed about their work, which is so dangerous that the head of Shin Bet is the only member of the agency whose name is disclosed to the public.
What the viewer will find depressingly familiar is the pointless, eminently preventable tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Making effective use of archival video, Moreh does a masterful job of recapping the bloody history of the region from 1967’s Six Day War to the present while eliciting unimaginably compelling color commentary from his subjects-men who alternately responded to politically motivated crimes against humanity and committed them.
In the world there are only a handful of human beings who have been where these six have been and seen what they have seen. Their accounts of attacks by and against their enemies make the average spy novel look like something out of Mother Goose. But, as horrifyingly fascinating as they are, the war stories told by these highly intelligent, unabashedly haunted men are not the scariest thing in The Gatekeepers.
Here’s what will make your blood run cold: These are mad men, guys who know everything there is to know about the history of violence committed against Israel by the frustrated and the fanatic but, surprisingly, these aren’t the objects of their contempt.
To a man, each sees the country’s future as bleak due to the refusal of successive administrations to take the common sense step of engaging with victims of the occupation-which Shalom compares to the brutal German occupations of WWII-and cooperating in the creation of a Palestinian state. Terrorists aren’t the real problem, the six assert. The country’s political leaders are. Military might doesn’t necessarily make right, these wearily eloquent veterans of endless struggle have learned the hard way. “The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate,” laments Ayalon, “is that we win every battle but lose the war.”