If an entire country were to commission an authorized biography, it likely would resemble “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” filmmaker Richard Trank’s celebratory overview of Israel’s first three decades. Produced by Moriah Films, a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and based on the book by Yehuda Avner, who serves here as avuncular host and talking head, the documentary (still playing theaters Stateside since its Oct. 18 New York opening) is moderately interesting as a once-over-lightly political history lesson best suited for home-screen consumption. Amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes sporadically lighten the prevailingly reverential tone.
A former Israeli diplomat who served in sundry capacities under such icons as Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin, Avner — now a hearty and loquacious octogenarian — was singularly well placed to be an eyewitness to history. His vivid recollections of key event, particularly the triumphant Six Day War and the near-disastrous Yom Kippur War, have the solid ring of authoritative accounts offered with an insider’s perspective, and are aptly illustrated by often compelling archival footage.
Unfortunately, Trank’s efforts to embellish Avner’s narrative are by turns overbearing and distracting. Lee Holdridge’s intrusive musical score all too obviously strains to overinflate emotional responses that the words and images elicit on their own.
And the gimmick of well-known actors (with recognizable voices) doing voiceovers as Meir (Sandra Bullock), Rabin (Michael Douglas), Eshkol (Leonard Nimoy) and Begin (Christoph Waltz) is a decidedly mixed blessing. Bullock is a standout for all the wrong reasons, primarily because the audience cannot help comparing her disembodied voice with the conspicuously different sound of the real Meir in vintage clips. Trank doesn’t help matters with his decision to have Bullock more or less dub the late prime minister during a key scene.
On the other hand, Avner effortlessly increases the entertainment value of “The Prime Ministers” with colorful stories about other historical personages, some of whom are voiced by lesser-known talents. His account of how Eshkol and President Lyndon B. Johnson bonded while tending to a calf at Johnson’s Texas ranch sounds like the kind of stranger-than-fiction episode that could inspire a feature-length, fact-based dramedy. And Avner’s suggestion that a Watergate-plagued President Nixon was at least partly inebriated when he approved an Israeli arms deal during the Yom Kippur War is at once disconcerting and darkly comical.