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. If I have a quibble, it’s that he never reveals the most tantalizing secret of all: how the hell he pulled it off.
Think of today’s most shadowy American spy masters, 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 such as John Negroponte or David Gompert. Now try to picture them agreeing to spill the beans with unreserved candor about the most sensitive, controversial, borderline-illegal things they’ve ever done behind a closed door. While being filmed. It simply doesn’t happen.
Except Moreh, a former cinematographer whose only other directing credit is for Sharon, a 2008 documentary about the Israeli prime minister, somehow made it happen. 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 puppet masters of which the puppet masters in those pictures are pale imitations. I frequently flashed back to characters and scenarios from Zero Dark Thirty as I watched Moreh’s meditation on the vicious cycle that is the war on terror, and I came away considering his in many respects the more honest, revelatory work.
Neither their names nor 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 in the film 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. At the same time, he elicits unimaginably compelling color commentary from his subjects — men who alternately responded to politically motivated crimes against humanity and committed them.
Only a handful of human beings in the world 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 read 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, their nation’s enemies aren’t the objects of their contempt.
To a man, each sees the country’s future as bleak because of 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 World War II — and cooperating in the creation of a Palestinian state. Terrorists aren’t the real problem, the six assert. Their country’s political leaders are.
Military might doesn’t necessarily make right, as these wearily eloquent veterans of endless struggle have learned the hard way. “The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate,” Ayalon laments, “is that we win every battle but lose the war.”