Good intentions often make bad movies.
“O Jerusalem” is based on a best-selling book about the rise of the state of Israel, written in 1972 by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, former journalists based in the Middle East. Thirty-five years ago, it still seemed possible to contain complex geopolitical events in thick, fact-packed novels like those by Leon Uris and James Michener. In these books, brave and attractive fictional characters interact with real-life figures to provide narrative connections and interact with one another to season the battle scenes with love stories. Satisfied readers came away feeling they had achieved some understanding of history while enjoying romance and action.
After nearly four more decades of impenetrable strife, getting history through a fictionalized story of love and friendship is just too big a pill to hide in the applesauce. And packing a book of more than 600 pages into a feature-length movie inevitably produces a feeling of skimming over the top of events that merit a more thoughtful treatment. The characters in the movie are just symbols: One is a Jew, one is an Arab, one is a concentration camp survivor. Each is there to illustrate a point, not tell a story. Director Elie Chouraqui moves them around the map of Israel as if he is moving the top hat and the thimble around a Monopoly board.
Samuel Goldwyn presents a film written and directed by Elie Chouraqui. Based on the novel by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (for some war scenes). Opening today at Landmark Renaissance.
It begins in post-war New York, where Bobby Goldman (JJ Feild), a Jewish World War II vet, and Said Chahine (Said Taghmaoui), an Arab student, quickly become close friends. A couple of radio broadcasts about fights breaking out in Jerusalem later, they find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Each tries to be a force for moderation and cooperation, but each is surrounded by those who are too angry, too desperate, too exhausted, or too cynical to try to find a peaceful resolution.
The movie is even-handed but frank in acknowledging the terrible compromises and atrocities on all sides. The British leave, knowing that without their “protection,” violence is inevitable, but make no effort to establish a structure for the groups to work together in resolving their conflicts. David Ben-Gurion (Ian Holm, under an uncontrollable white frizz of hair) greets immigrants kindly but has them taught to shoot and sent into battle. Most troubling, because he needs any support he can get, Ben-Gurion joins forces with Irgun, an extremist faction that slaughters an Arab community.
Tovah Feldshuh, who played Golda Meier on Broadway, is utterly at home in the same role, making a strong impression in her brief appearances. The movie momentarily comes alive during her meeting with the King of Jordan, when she must consider his offer to trade peace for deferral of the creation of a Jewish state. That scene contrasts sharply with the thin storylines of the fictional characters, stuck with dialogue so exposition-heavy, it sounds like the actors are chewing on rocks.
Inevitably, the conflict comes down to Bobby and Said, both having lost people they love, pointing guns at each other. Unfortunately, any power in that moment is hard to feel through a lightweight script that feels less based on a fact-based best-seller than on The Middle East Conflict for Dummies.
Parents should know that this movie includes battle violence and war atrocities with many characters injured or killed. Characters drink and smoke. A strength of the movie is its attempt to provide an even-handed portrayal that is fair to all sides and the portrayal of exceptionally strong and brave women characters.
Families who see this movie should learn more about the history of Israel and the current conflicts and proposals for a peaceful resolution.
Families who appreciate this film will also appreciate Exodus and Against All Odds – Israel Survives.