With “The Green Prince,” an extraordinarily engrossing tale becomes an extremely uncinematic experience in the hands of Israeli documentarian Nadav Schirman. Like the book “Son of Hamas” by Mosab Hassan Yousef, the film tells of Yousef’s decade-long stint as an Israeli secret-service informant, a job that required him to betray his father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a key member of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement. But Yousef makes a frustratingly inarticulate talking head, and his friendly relationship with the Shin Bet’s agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak — often onscreen as well — never carries the proper weight. Commercial prospects look dicey.
Just as problematic is Schirman’s slew of awkward visual annotations — including the repeated use of drone shots of dubious provenance — that do little to enrich the narrative or engage the eye. In the near-total absence of actual footage of what Yousef describes, it may well be the case that his book is one of those that simply never needed to be filmed.
Certainly the story itself is a page-turner, and a few of Yousef’s statements carry a chill, as when, early in the film, he says of Hamas, “The goal was to kill Israelis, but Allah had other plans for me.”
Alas, it’s never satisfactorily explained in the film why Yousef (aka the Green Prince), apprehended in the mid-’90s for buying illegal weapons, then interrogated and imprisoned, would accept Ben Yitzhak’s offer to work for the Shin Bet, particularly given his father’s own lengthier imprisonment by the Israeli government and the younger man’s description of how cooperating with Israel is the “most shameful thing you can do in my country.”
A more dynamic screen presence than the jittery Yousef, Ben Yitzhak reveals that he holds a degree in psychology and seems to prove it in his recounting of how and why he used the Green Prince to his ends, getting him to disclose vital information about Hamas and its planned activities. Yousef mentions that he was highly opposed to the rash of suicide bombings that reached a bloody climax just before Sept. 11, 2001, an event whose enormous ramifications the film curiously neglects to note.
The glut of milky-looking surveillance footage, complete with crosshairs, quickly grows tiresome, especially as it’s never linked in any meaningful way to what the men talk about. One is left to assume that, like other visual elements of the film, these shots were either staged or lifted from the public domain.
Cinematography of the talking heads appears standard-issue. The insistently brooding score by British composer Max Richter begins, by intention or not, to drone, resembling the less abrasive variety of late-’80s Nine Inch Nails tracks. Sound recording is clear and capably mixed.