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'Gatekeepers': The inside men of Shin Bet ★★★★

Outside the realm of extremists, of which there is no shortage in the bloody Israeli/Palestinian morass, few would suggest an easy solution to anything in the Middle East. Remarkably, however, given the six different personalities and viewpoints captured in "The Gatekeepers," filmmaker Dror Moreh has come up with a needle-sharp, profoundly humane political documentary folding the separate testimonies of former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service operation, into a brilliantly sustained argument for a different, smarter, humane way forward.

This may not be the movie Israel's right wing would've commissioned. For anyone else it's an eye-opener, made in a cool, authoritative style drawing from Errol Morris' work, particularly "The Fog of War," with a dose of Charles Ferguson's Iraq invasion analysis "No End in Sight."

Both those titles apply to Moreh's film, which ends with the oldest living ex-Shin Bet leader, Avraham Shalom, likening Israel to "a brutal occupation force," similar to "the Germans in World War II." This from one of the men who, decades earlier, helped bring Adolf Eichmann out of Argentina and into a courtroom in Israel.

At the beginning of "The Gatekeepers" Moreh confronts us with a deceptive do-or-die scenario. Imagine you run the country's secret service. You receive intel, backed up but not firmly verified by surveillance footage, that terrorists are driving a truck through a heavily populated area. Each second brings you closer to a decision — to strike or not to strike — that will affect the next chapter of history. What's the likelihood of these really being terrorists, ready to launch a deadly assault? If civilians are killed in a pre-emptive strike, will it have been worth it?

With that sobering overture, "The Gatekeepers" has you in its grip.

Each decision, each assassination, each reprisal weighs heavily on the camera subjects and, as a result, on the audience. Beginning with the Six-Day War in 1967, director Moreh charts, quickly, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and other regions. (Some of the explanatory footage is designed strictly to bring outsiders up to speed.) But the film never loses sight of its mission. The Shin Bet gatekeepers spill a lot of fascinating beans here, discussing covert operations, mistakes, successes — and out of it all comes a collective sense of near-futility. And yet, according to some estimates, 90 percent of the planned terrorist attacks were thwarted."

The intelligence work is stunning, at its best, but the results to date fall so short of meaningful political progress, it's enough to make these men rip open their souls (some more willingly than others) and unburden themselves. This is not a documentary wherein outside experts or war correspondents or "the other side" is consulted. A lesser filmmaker might've been tripped up by such a narrow focus. A lesser filmmaker might've misjudged the melange of archival footage, fabricated surveillance footage and talking heads, which Moreh handles with a blend of cinematic flash and tact.

I left his film shaken, yet inspired by the honesty of these six men. In addition to Shalom (who ran Shin Bet from 1980-1986), the voices and faces belong to Yaakov Peri (1988-1994); Carmi Gillon (1994-1996); Ami Avalon (1996-2000); Avi Dichter (2000-2005); and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011). This is a great and necessary document in support of a two-state solution. Even those who don't believe in such a solution may find their minds changed by "The Gatekeepers."

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Gatekeepers' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for violent content including disturbing images)
Running time: 1:37; in Hebrew with English subtitles
Opens: Friday.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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