“Golda” — as in Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister who resigned in 1974 over her administration’s handling of the Yom Kippur War — films its title character in confrontational close-ups of her red-rimmed eyes, nicotine-stained fingers and swollen ankles. Somewhere under the prosthetics is Helen Mirren, formidably shouldering Meir’s suppressed anguish over the war’s death toll.
Extreme costuming often feels gimmicky, but here, it humanizes the director Guy Nattiv’s terse accounting of guilt. As one imagines the burden of wearing Meir’s artificial skin, you can practically hear Nattiv hiss: Now imagine putting yourself in the actual woman’s orthopedic shoes. Or as Mirren’s Meir cracks to Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), “Things could be worse. You could have my feet.”
Israel has been surprise-attacked by Egypt and Syria, and Kissinger is concerned with keeping the Soviets calm and oil prices low. The script, by Nicholas Martin, doesn’t argue the righteousness of the conflict. Instead, it frets over the body count — and though we’re with Meir and her fractious advisers as they clap for the massacre of Egyptian soldiers, the camera reacts by going all woozy like it’s nauseous.
Niv Adiri’s dense sound design and Dascha Dauenhauer’s impactful score turn war into a living nightmare. For good measure, we also go inside Meir’s bad dreams. Awake, however, the polarizing leader is the kind of stoic who chain-smokes through her lymphoma treatments. The film is structured by her cigarettes. Edits cut from one puff to another; the minister of defense, Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger), uses packs and lighters to stand-in for military units; ashtrays fill and fill again. We’re left with the sense that the stress of those thousands of lives cut short may have killed her, too.
Rated PG-13 for pervasive smoking. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters.