Last night, I watched a movie. It was intense. A handful of characters, very few of them likable, are forced to put up with each other and spend their days discussing lofty things like destiny and justice all while eyeing each other’s backs, looking for a good spot to stick the dagger. I’m not talking about Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight; I’m talking about Frontline’s The Hateful Eight Years. OK, so the movie was really called Netanyahu at War, but don’t let the thin grey mist of public television dullness fool you: last night’s prime time offering was every bit as surreal, titillating, maddening, and wonderful as anything the master of pulp fiction has done in years.
Sadly, that wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention. From its very first lines—an Israeli political spin doctor advisor declares that the prime minister’s aspirations are “messianic”—Netanyahu at War announced itself as that rarest of birds, now largely extinct in the heavens of American journalism, the first draft of history that, while written more or less in real time, is nonetheless neatly contextualized and psychologically astute. To that end, we got Bibi the kid in grainy Super 8 home videos, with the narrator telling us that the young child’s mind was shaped by his father’s grim and slightly paranoid view of the course of human—and Jewish—events.
But that was just Act One. Before too long, the main characters all arrive on the scene, and that’s when the real drama begins. There’s the young national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, who talks tough and laments that when it comes to American foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s the greying Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who speaks in poetically portentous verses. And there’s the comic relief of Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Democratic foreign policy who, like Hamlet’s hapless friends, are mixed up in existential turmoil they can’t even begin to understand.
Now, had this been, you know, a documentary, it would’ve probably spent a little bit of time, you know, documenting some of the external realities that compel its lead character, the talented Mr. Bibi, to feel and act as he does. That would include stuff like, say, the concrete decision made by the Palestinian Authority to resort to violence after refusing Ehud Barak’s generous peace deal in Camp David in 2000, or the 11,000 rockets Hamas has fired into Israel since the IDF’s 2005 withdrawal, or Iran’s dedication to sponsor, plan, and finance terrorist attacks against Jews and Israelis anywhere from Bint Jbeil to Buenos Aires. None of these things are discussed at any real length; when we see Palestinians, it’s only briefly and in black-and-white snapshots of youths holding slingshots.
That’s not because of some ideological bend. It’s because reality, really, is a nuisance: because it perfectly mimicks the emotional and intellectual sensibilities of the Obama Administration, Netanyahu at War is a movie that’s all about politics and perceptions and theories and maneuvers, and not at all about observable facts. Bibi and Barack are clashing about Iran? Must be because of some deeply nuanced set of personal and political intricacies, not simply because one leader thinks it’s a good idea to placate the world’s foremost exporter of terrorism while the other has strong reservations.
Like Beckett’s best creations, the characters in Netanyahu at War are funny, frustrating, heartbreaking, and largely surreal. They have terrific conversations—some already contested as false—and spin theories, and have a tremendous capacity to pretend tomorrow that today never happened. That’s the charm of Tarantino’s new movie, too, but unlike The Hateful Eight, The Hateful Eight Years ends not with a bloodbath but with ever more bizarre ascensions into political maneuvers that grow more intricate the more reality is refused. Who is Mr. Netanyahu at war with? To watch the Frontline special, you’d think that it wasn’t the Iranians or the Palestinians or anyone else actually taking up arms against Israel, but rather Obama’s theory of history. No real war, no real consequences, just two men and their competing ideas. It’s the stuff public broadcasting dreams are made of.
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