No political leader is beloved by all constituents and looked upon entirely favorably by history. Some are remembered largely because of their formidable accomplishments and forgiven their shortcomings, while others are perceived as villains whose contributions to society were more detrimental than anything else. And then there are those who are revered as heroes in some circles and enjoy a far more controversial status due to the way in which their actions and leadership impacted different groups. One such figure is Menachem Begin, a founding father of the State of Israel who later served as its prime minister.
The very existence of Israel as a country is a topic that regularly attracts vigorous debate, especially in light of recent events in Gaza that have put the decades-long conflict back in the worldwide spotlight. Begin is a figure with a firm opinion on the matter, and whose activities prior to 1948 saw him as a high-ranking member of established Jewish resistance groups that fought the ruling British government. That chapter of his life earned him the label of terrorist by some he would later interact with as head of state, creating an even more complicated road to the achievement of his aims, which included an unexpected and historic peace treaty with Egypt.
The documentary Upheaval, from Jonathan Gruber, does a faithful job of seeking to understand its subject without venerating him, never stopping short of fully investigating the motivators for those momentous decisions that came to dominate his legacy. Assembling experts with considerable knowledge of his life and Israel’s history, including former ambassadors Ron Dermer and Michael Oren, and Israeli authors like Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis, helps to paint a full picture of who Begin was and how he has influenced modern scholarship. What’s most effective, however, is archive footage of Begin himself, usually in black-and-white and full alternatively of passion and poise.
In an age where so many politicians across all parties profess what they believe people want them to say merely to win another election or to smear their opponents, it’s refreshing to encounter someone like Begin who was never shy about giving his opinion. He emphatically speaks to gathered crowds about ensuring that there will never again be another Holocaust, channeling his own past and experiences into his priorities for the country that has chosen him to serve their interests. He exhibits a calmer, more relatable demeanor when seen speaking casually, in both Hebrew and English, to an interviewer or talking with his unlikely friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
The positions Begin held may seem contradictory before making a complete analysis of both what he went through and what his young country endured in its formative years. Like another well-known Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who has been featured in recent documentaries and will be portrayed in multiple upcoming scripted projects, Begin was elected late in life after many years of government service. What he did while in office was heavily contemplated and informed by all that he had seen throughout decades of fighting for a Zionist homeland and working to establish a concrete and enduring nation. Even if audiences disagree with what Begin envisioned and implemented, there should be little debate that every move was deliberate and carefully-calculated with considerable weight.
What may surprise audiences most is that, like Meir, Begin’s political career ended in resignation. The notion of taking responsibility for the consequences of a difficult decision and then stepping down gracefully is woefully absent in today’s political climate, and is also not equivalent to reputational or criminal absolution. Presented primarily in chronological order, this film follows Begin from his beginnings to war with Lebanon in 1982 that was precipitated by militant actions on Begin’s part. Though that shouldn’t be seen as the most enduring moment of his term despite it being the last, it’s difficult to separate that which culminates a lifetime of service from an entire identity.
Begin isn’t definitive of everything that Israel represents or has represented, but this film will provide an extraordinary introduction to someone whose greatest accomplishments include both peace with an Arab neighbor and the expansion of settlement construction that continues to be a flashpoint issue today. Though he has been dead for nearly thirty years, Begin comes marvelously to life in this eye-opening exploration of a man who, by all evidence presented in this film, would have been perfectly content to be judged by his worst moments just as much by his best ones.
Upheaval is set to make its worldwide virtual live premiere on June 7th, followed by a nationwide Watch Now @ Home cinema release on June 9th.