This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In a scene that could be from "Zero Dark Thirty" or the latest news story about drones, a computer screen with a slight greenish glow shows an aerial view of an urban neighborhood.
The camera fixes on a long automobile as it makes its way down narrow streets. Referring to the screen, a bald man, a former Israeli intelligence chief, talks quietly about the difficult decisions that must be made in fighting terrorists. The screen is reproducing images from years back, when the man was in charge of Shin Bet, Israel's powerful domestic intelligence agency.
He explains that three people were in the vehicle that was being tracked from the air. One was a known terrorist. No one was absolutely certain who the other two were. Could they have been merely friends of the terrorist, or members of the terrorist's family? The bald man believed they were themselves terrorists, but he was not 100 percent sure.
As the screen shows the vehicle making its way through a Palestinian neighborhood, the bald man discusses the morality as well as the tactical value of the life-or-death decisions an intelligence chief must make. Is killing the terrorist, and thus presumably saving future innocent lives, worth taking a chance on killing people who may themselves be innocent of anything but riding with a terrorist?
The intelligence chief pauses, and is silent as the vehicle on the screen disappears in a burst of smoke.
And that's just the beginning of "The Gatekeepers," a powerful, startlingly frank Israeli documentary that revolves around the reminiscences of six former officials of Shin Bet. Since 1967, Shin Bet has been in charge of counterterrorism and intelligence in the West Bank and Gaza, territories seized by the Israelis in the Six-Day War.
Director Dror Moreh asks very pointed questions of these men who ran Shin Bet, and they give some startlingly frank answers, including sharp criticism of decisions made by the country's heads of state. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of Israel and its tumultuous relations with the Palestinians over nearly half a century from the standpoint of the ultimate insiders, men trusted with making truly existential decisions about the future of the nation.
Several of the interviewees, tough-minded former spymasters now out of the main arena, strongly suggest that the only sane solution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is to establish two states. Several of them further suggest that some Israeli leaders have missed opportunities that might have led to a transition to two states, in particular by not stopping Israeli settlers from moving into the disputed territories, which have been proposed as part of a hypothetical Palestinian state.
The strongest and most unsettling conclusion that emerges from the interviews is the sense that Israel will not make peace until the Palestinians stop killing Israelis, and the Palestinians will not make peace until Israel stops allowing settlers to move into and live in the disputed territories. The dilemma is daunting, to say the least. But the former spymasters in "The Gatekeepers" lay it out clearly and without illusion The film was nominated for this year's best documentary Oscar.
Opens Friday March 15
"Stoker" is more interesting to look at than it is to actually watch.
Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose "Oldboy" is being remade by Spike Lee, is known for stylish gore. "Stoker," a so-so thriller that is Park's first American movie, has only a moderate amount of gore, but it's got enough style for half a dozen Swedish movies.
After a while, as the actors stare at one another meaningfully and the camera swoops and turns and then fixes on yet another symbol -- keep an eye out for shoes -- I found myself wishing Park would get a move on.
The story is an overt homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, if you remember the master's "Shadow of a Doubt," you'll already know how to feel about a fellow called "Uncle Charlie."
In "Stoker," Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up for his brother's funeral after being missing for years, supposedly traveling the world. His niece, India (Mia Waskowska, who was stunning in "Jane Eyre"), is depressed by her father's death in a car crash, and she is suspicious of her Uncle Charlie, particularly after he charms her widowed mother (Nicole Kidman) and moves into the family's large home. Mostly India sulks and says nothing. I'm probably not the first to observe that, at times, she is reminiscent of Wednesday of "The Addams Family."
Eventually, it becomes clear that a killer has come to town. India has to decide how she feels about that. Assailed by a fairly potent mix of desire and dread, sex and sadism, she finally makes up her mind. What she decides to do came as a surprise, an entertainingly puzzling one, but I do wish Park hadn't wasted so much time performing visual games and juggling symbols before he got to his rather haunting denouement.
Opens Friday March 15