Film Review: The Gatekeepers

An eye-opening documentary about the hollow victories of Israel&#8217;s top anti-terror fighters, <i>The Gatekeepers</i> is a tart, complicated cocktail of a film sure to send audience members out of the theatre with heads abuzz and arguments a-popping.

For his documentary The Gatekeepers, director Dror Moreh’s first coup lies obviously in the get: convincing the six men who led Shin Bet—Israel’s secret service which deals with cases of domestic terrorism—from 1980 to 2011 to come on-camera and talk with seemingly complete frankness about what they did. Moreh’s second coup is so thoroughly defying expectations.

The unapologetic presentation of supremely dirty tactics, topical subject matter, and highly glossed technical specs (Moreh started out as a cinematographer) and you-are-there archival footage all combine to give the film a techno-thriller gleam that could lead some to expect a straightforward celebration of jobs well done. As the film ably shows, these men’s records, specifically the radically increased ability to thwart successful terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, speak for themselves. But just like how Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In turned a gimlet eye on the blowback of the war on drugs, Moreh’s film steers far away from triumphalism to embrace a grimmer reality.

By focusing primarily on the period beginning in 1980, Moreh sidesteps repeating much history about Israel’s two stunning victories against larger Arab armies in 1967 and 1973. Afterwards, none of Israel’s neighbors had much stomach for open conflict. Dangers would thereafter come mostly from inside, frequently from Palestinians living in territories captured in 1967, though right-wing Jewish terrorists opposed to any peace process or relinquishing land also became a greater threat in the early 1990s. The day-to-day work of thwarting assassins or keeping suicide bombers off city buses would fall to Shin Bet.

As the agency’s former heads describe with bullet-point concision, the job is a mixture of spying and decisive action that reads like a more intimate version of the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone campaign. After gathering intelligence on a target via informants and surveillance, the agency strikes. In many cases, like in 2006 when Shin Bet targeted Palestinian terrorist Yahya Ayyash—a legendary figure known as “The Engineer” who was behind several devastating attacks on Israel—the strike meant assassination.

There’s a nonchalant air to Moreh’s interviewees that is initially disconcerting. They come on one after the other, to talk in remarkably dispassionate ways, about the frequently brutal methods they utilized. Given the litany of torture and baroque assassination plots detailed here, their forthrightness is jarring but also refreshing. The morality of these men’s actions will of course be judged differently by each viewer, but at the very least they are allowing their dirty hands to be shown, without crafting elaborate scrims to hide behind.

This directness could stem in part from the disillusionment each man appears to feel. Although happy to catalogue Shin Bet’s successes, they take pains to address its failures, like the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish terrorist. They also make the case that all of their work might well have been for naught, with Israel possibly less safe than ever before. Yaakov Peri (1988–1995) even notes sardonically that Shin Bet retirees tend to become “a bit of a leftist.” As Moreh builds his film towards its intellectually harrowing conclusion, he raises the dark possibility that after all this time, Shin Bet could have won almost every battle that it fought, but lost the war.