October 22, 2018

The pioneers: A revealing look at Israel’s early prime ministers

Moriah Films, the documentary-making arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has bitten off another solid chunk of Israeli history in “The Prime Ministers,” a film based on the lively book of the same title by Yehuda Avner, who doubles as the chief narrator of the two-part production.

Born in Manchester, England, Avner made aliyah in time to serve in Israel’s War of Independence and eventually became the trusted speechwriter and adviser to five prime ministers, from Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, and, later, Shimon Peres.

One of his jobs was to take confidential notes at cabinet and other top-level meetings, which would underpin the official minutes of the meetings and then be destroyed.

Instead, Avner stashed away the notes and eventually extracted them from filing cabinets as ready-made reminders of the momentous years between 1963 and 1983, during which Israel fought the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War six years later.

At times, the film bridges the historical footage with voice-over comments by the leaders, with Moriah’s usual assembly of top Hollywood talent doing the honors, for free.

In this case, Leonard Nimoy is the voice of Eshkol, Sandra Bullock is Golda Meir, Michael Douglas is Rabin and Christopher Waltz is Begin.

There is a touch of irony in the choice of Waltz, the German-Austrian actor who made his name in American movies as the ruthless Nazi and relentless Jew hunter in “Inglourious Basterds,” now becoming the voice of the Israeli statesman. In Moriah’s preceding “It Is No Dream,” Waltz was the voice of Theodor Herzl.

While there are no earth-shaking revelations in “Prime Ministers,” there are small and intimate moments that shed light on the Israeli leaders and the history they made.

On the day David Ben-Gurion was to announce the country’s independence, its inhabitants were in the dark about the new state’s name.

One inquiring resident was Leopold Mahler, a descendent of composer Gustav Mahler, 

The often underrated Eshkol, frequently accused of indecisiveness in the run-up to the Six-Day War, emerges as a man “who made the right decision at the right time,” Avner said.

In one wonderful scene, Eshkol arrives at the Texas ranch of President Lyndon B. Johnson to plead for American aid to replenish Israel’s depleted arsenal after the Six-Day War.

LBJ proudly shows Eshkol around his spread, and when the old kibbutznik expertly examines a cow’s muscles, the two unlike men bond.

Abba Eban, adored in the Diaspora for his eloquence and mastery of English, comes off as the frequent butt of derision by his earthier colleagues.

“Eban never makes the right decision, only the right speech,” was Eshkol’s putdown, and Rabin, while ambassador to the United States, complained that “a conversation with Eban is a soliloquy — he talks and we listen.”

Co-producers and writers Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and Richard Trank (who also directed) started research on “The Prime Ministers” in 2010 and initiated the first of about 100 interviews with Avner in November 2011.

“Our biggest challenge was how to cut our great interviews with Avner,” Trank said. “Everything he said was gold.”

Part I of “Prime Ministers” is the 13th production by the Oscar-winning Moriah team, which now has its own in-house digital film studio. It will open in theaters in mid-October.

Part II, focusing on Rabin and Begin, is scheduled for completion next spring or summer.