In his well-balanced and lucidly constructed documentary about the Six Day War of 1967 — a flashpoint event that continues to inflame passions and impact politics in the Middle East and beyond — helmer Ilan Ziv provides invaluable perspective and fresh insights while offering an enlightening history lesson with the narrative momentum of an engrossing drama. Launched in limited theatrical release just in time for the 40th anniversary of the conflict, “Six Days” will have a long shelf life in ancillary venues.
Skillfully entwining archival photos and film, new interviews with eyewitnesses and a limited number of “dramatic re-creations,” Ziv generates the tension of a first-rate thriller in the pic’s first half as he details the buildup to war in May and June of 1967.
Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser — introduced by narrator John Tarzwell as “the greatest Arab leader of the 20th century” — appears to be the region’s last best hope for a Pan-Arab nationalist movement based on secular interests, not religious fanaticism. Unfortunately, Nasser is all too quick to believe Soviet reports that Israel plans to invade Syria. Even more unfortunately, he is every bit as credulous when his top military commander, Gen. Abdel Hakim Amer, brazenly exaggerates the might and readiness of Egyptian forces.
In Tel Aviv, prime minister Levi Eshkol argues against launching a pre-emptive strike even after Nasser closes the strategic Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Sharply focusing on one of the fluky ironies that often help shape history, Ziv shows how Eshkol’s fleeting but fateful flub during a national radio broadcast undermines the prime minister’s authority — and even turns many members of the military against him. As a result, the far more hawkish Moshe Dayan is able to assume control as minister of defense.
“Six Days” vividly illustrates how, then as now, governments use mass media to rally popular support for war-making. Through May 1967, Egyptian TV newscasts abound in anti-Israel propaganda. (Ironically, the telecasts are picked up elsewhere — and have the unintended consequence of attracting Jews from throughout the world to volunteer for the Israeli military.) Later, during the earliest hours of the war, Egyptian media — not unlike Iraqi media during a more recent conflict — continue to broadcast glowing accounts of victories that are entirely fictitious.
Although unmistakably sympathetic to Israel, “Six Days” acknowledges Nasser as a tragic, even noble figure, and persuasively argues Israel’s military victory, though arguably necessary in “a war of national identity,” ignited “a never-ending cycle of occupation, terrorism and reprisal.” Forty years later, the collateral damage still is being felt.