Helen Mirren playing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is the kind of casting that screams “Academy Award.” The actress is indeed typically excellent. She’s been made up to look like the real woman, and her performance is filled with subtle nuances. The film itself is not quite what you’d expect, though. Instead of being a straightforward biopic, it focuses on a short span of time during which Meir had to make a series of tough decisions. Not a bad approach, really, although one that leads the story to feel repetitive, despite Mirren’s brilliance.

The time is 1973, and Israel is coming under attack from Egypt and Syria. Faced with the potential destruction of her country, Meir has to determine how to respond. Her cabinet members and military advisors offer conflicting pieces of advice, making choices difficult. She also attempts to weigh every possible action against the number of soldiers any maneuver is likely to claim. Determining whether a tactic will be successful enough to compensate for the cost is theoretical, at best. For help, she turns to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber). He is invested in Israel’s future yet wants to keep American involvement on the down-low, so as not to lose access to Syrian oil.

Golda unfolds as a series of moments from the Yom Kippur War. We see her consulting with her team and picking a course. Then we see how that plays out. It’s almost always shown from her perspective, as she listens to radio comms from the front line. The first time or two, that’s haunting, as the audio-only approach gets you to envision the horror taking place on the battlefield. The film repeats it, to lesser effect each time. After a while, the idea of a story goes out the window and it feels like we’re just watching a series of military actions, with little to drive home the significance of this historical event in a human manner.

Golda Meir’s outside life barely factors in. We learn nothing about how she feels taking on the responsibility of being Prime Minister, nor do we get much insight into her relationships with those around her. Admittedly, her reign was large and complex, making it hard to pare down into 100 minutes. Nevertheless, Nicholas Martin’s screenplay focuses on Meir as a tactician, when showing her as a tactician and a person would have been more fulfilling.

At least Helen Mirren is at the center, giving Meir quiet strength. She allows us to feel the immense pressure the PM is under, as well as the fear of knowing a bad decision will be catastrophic. When playing a figure of historical importance, there’s a tendency to give an overtly showy performance. Mirren avoids that, instead capturing an inner determination that silently drives Meir. Histrionics wouldn’t work here. Watching as this leader meticulously, cautiously assesses her options is exactly what’s needed, and the Oscar winner provides it.

Golda does what it does satisfactorily. What is does simply isn’t sufficient to capture the magnitude of Meir’s leadership. Mirren is up for greatness. The movie overall falls slightly short.

out of four

Golda is rated PG-13 for thematic material and pervasive smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.