The new biopic about Israeli premier Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War is almost about the current Ukraine War.  Under attack by Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian armies, Meir, portrayed by British actress Helen Mirren, tells her colleagues and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the Russians never change.  They are always malevolent, always plotting, never to be trusted. She recalls growing up as a girl in the Ukraine, when the Cossacks came hunting for Jews.  Her father hid the family in the basement until the danger passed.  Meir her whole life knew about Russia’s dark impulses.  She once hid from marauding Russians.  And now, her country’s survival is at stake as Russian proxies, outnumbering Israelis exponentially, attack from two directions.

Unsurprisingly, when Golda recently debuted in Moscow, a Russian nationalist group complained about the “undisguised Russophobic context of this propaganda product of the British film industry, an attempt by English scriptwriters and directors to split Russian society, including along ethnic and religious lines, pitting Russian and Jewish people against each other.”

That the film was permitted at all in increasingly repressive Russia is itself stunning. Hopefully some eyes will be opened, and a few Russian viewers will recognize some unpleasant attributes of their country that don’t seem to change.

This film, of course, is a dramatization and not a documentary, so it’s not a source for reliable history.  But Meir’s disdain for the Russians rings true and is justified.  There are other aspects that ring less true.  Meir repeatedly reaches out to Kissinger, a fellow Jew whose family escaped Nazi Germany.  He reminds her that he is first an American, secondly secretary of state, and third a Jew. She bemusedly reminds him that Israelis read from right to left. 

Understandably Meir urgently wants help from Kissinger.  Israel was surprised by the Egyptian-Syria assault on a Jewish holiday. It also was perhaps overly confident after its dramatic triumph in the 1967 war.  In October 1973 there were suspicions of an attack, but Israel did not fully mobilize. New Soviet weaponry makes the invaders especially effective.  Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, a hero of 1967, is portrayed in horror, and vomiting, as he watches the Syrian advance from his helicopter.  He returns to his colleagues bedraggled and hysterical, declaring the war in the north lost, and urging armament of Israeli nukes.  Meir quietly tells her army chief of staff that Dayan is “finished,” and the chief of staff is now in charge of the war effort.

Israel’s losses in just a few days are stunning, with hundreds of tanks and scores of jets destroyed.  Meir extracts a promise from Kissinger for more jets, as she listens to radio blasts from screaming and dying Israeli tank crews in the Sinai who are being overrun by the advancing Egyptians.  Meir realizes the U.S. must be cautious, not wanting an Arab oil embargo, and also hoping to wean Egypt out of the Soviet orbit.  She watches President Nixon on television at a press conference, proclaiming neutrality while urging compromise by both sides. 

Not long afterwards, Meir goes to her rooftop to see the sky filled with American planes delivering arms to Israel.  She remarks only that the American airlift has arrived without comment on how it occurred.  This omission makes no sense even within the context of this dramatization.  Massive American arms airlifts don’t just occur naturally like rainstorms.  But nothing more is said about it. Israel begins to turn back the Arab attacks into an eventual rout.

It’s too bad that the film ignores one of the 1973 war’s most dramatic chapters.  Whatever Nixon was saying publicly, he was never willing to tolerate defeat much less annihilation for Israel.  Even as his political power was fast receding due to Watergate, he was determined at all costs to prevent Soviet proxies from defeating democratic Israel.  Knowing that an Arab oil embargo that would wreck the American economy was almost certain, he still resolved to replace all the arms Israel lost in the war and to outmatch everything the Soviets were sending to Egypt and Syria. 

Other U.S. officials were more hesitant, such as Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and to an extent, Kissinger himself.  When Schlesinger suggested cautiously sending only three U.S. transport aircraft to Israel to avoid offending Arab sensibilities, Nixon snarled: “We are going to get blamed just as much for three as for 300…Get them in the air, now.”  When Kissinger told of specific Israeli weapons needs, Nixon ordered: “Double it,” and he exclaimed “Now get the hell out of here and get the job done.” When later told of further delays, Nixon demanded: “Send everything that can fly,” after which U.S. planes were in the air within nine hours.  The war began on October 6.  The U.S. special airlift began October 12 and continued for 32 days, with 567 missions delivering over 22,000 tons of arms, more than double what the Soviets were able to ship to their proxies.  Israel sometimes transported these arms from the airfield to the front within a few hours.  Israeli motorists honked and cheered when hearing U.S. planes overhead, and reputedly Meir herself wept.

The film shows Meir emotive many times as she bears the burdens of her grieving and mortally endangered nation, so the omission of her reaction to the airlift is inexplicable. She had for years carefully nurtured her relationship with Nixon, and she had pledged, as the film notes, to him that Israel, even in the face of an impending attack, would not preemptively attack first, as in 1967.         

Reputedly Meir for the rest of her life (she died of cancer at age 80 five years later) called Nixon “my president.”  She also said:  “For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.”

The airlift to Israel was an extraordinary exertion.  All the European allies refused to allow U.S. planes to land. Eventually the Portuguese dictatorship, under threat of ruptured ties, allowed U.S. planes to land in the Azores. The planes, protected by U.S. aircraft carriers below, had to carefully thread through the Mediterranean, unable to fly over European or north African Arab nations.  Of course, the Arab oil producers launched their embargo against the U.S., igniting an energy shortage in the U.S., gas lines, higher inflation, a recession and unemployment, helping to seal Nixon’s eventual doom in 1974.

As Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose later wrote: “There is no doubt that Nixon… made it possible for Israel to win, at some risk to his own reputation and at great risk to the American economy…He knew that his enemies… would never give him credit for saving Israel. He did it anyway.”

Meir was grateful, even if the film is not.  This omission was a missed opportunity for an exciting subplot that would have enlivened an already inspirational and fascinating film.  Under Meir, Israel prevails in the war and, as the film notes at the end, also in peace.  Chastened by defeat, and preserving his honor by explaining Egypt could not defeat the U.S., Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat makes peace with Israel in 1978, after visiting Israel in 1977, including a charming encounter between him and a retired Meir, whom during the war, as she notes, he had derided as “the old woman.” Sadat also expelled his former Soviet allies from Egypt and realigned with the U.S.

The Russian gambit to defeat Israel backfired into their ouster from the largest Arab nation. Perhaps Meir, who supposedly believed Russia never changes, would also note that Russia never learns.