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'Gatekeepers' hinges on questions of morality, security

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Sony Pictures Classics

The Oscar-nominated “The Gatekeepers” is the rare film that does not mince words.

A compelling documentary, it offers startlingly honest insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from some of those who called the shots.

Director Dror Moreh interviews a half-dozen heads of Shin Bet, Israel's ultra-secret intelligence agency charged with defending Israel against terrorism, espionage and the release of state secrets. Though we have no American equivalent, the Shin Bet is akin to a blend of the CIA, Homeland Security and the Secret Service.

These six men have never been interviewed about their work — so this is a coup for Moreh. Each speaks candidly about overseeing Israel's war on terror, acknowledging mistakes.

They dissect key decisions and reflect on the overall effectiveness and morality of their actions. These men have ordered bombings and staged assassinations. While none has become a peacenik, each exhibits a sense of guilt. The result is riveting.

The striking take-away is that each came to reconsider their hard-line stances. Most are now in favor of a more-conciliatory position toward the Palestinians, even pondering a two-state solution.

​The first lesson offered is the complicated nature of tracking and taking down terrorists.

“Politicians prefer binary options: do it or don't do it,” says Yuval Diskin, head of Shin Bet from 2005-2011. “As a commander, I find myself in situations that are different shades of gray.”

If they decide to strike, civilians could be killed. But if they don't, they leave their country vulnerable to peril. The godlike power to kill is not taken lightly.

“At night, later in the day, while shaving or on vacation, we all have our moments, “ Diskin continues. “You said OK, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. Yet you still say ‘there's something unnatural about it.' What's unnatural is the power you have to take lives in an instant.”

Not only is the information conveyed fascinating, but the film is seamlessly made. Moreh juxtaposes 60 Minutes-style interviews with war footage and re-created events. The transitions between intellectual discussion and brutal carnage are fluid and artful. While he presents key events in a chronology, it feels more organically illuminating than a history lesson.

Avraham Shalom, an avuncular-looking man in checked shirt and suspenders, remarks about tackling anti-terrorism as the Shin Bet head in the mid-1980s “without exactly knowing what it was, because terrorism hadn't developed.”

“I loved the idea (of a Palestinian state) so I went to the territories with people who dealt with the Palestinians,” said Shalom. “We didn't know what we wanted to achieve. We received no direction about our objectives. When you don't get direction for politicians, you're just like a rabbit, searching.”

These six men did what they deemed was in Israel's best interest — though they later question the morality of their decisions. But there are glimmers of hope.

“The Gatekeepers” is an exemplary, provocative work. It offers a blunt look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a perspective not previously covered on film, as seen through the eyes of a rare few in the control center.

Claudia Puig is a film critic for USA Today.

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