Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dror Moreh
Cast: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel C. Kurtzer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/21
Opens: May 7, 2021

What makes for great diplomacy? Consider these two schools of thought. One group believes that the personality of your diplomats is most important if you want foreign policy to go your way. The human factor. Another segment insists that it does not matter who your diplomats are: what is behind them is what counts, meaning, does your country have the army, navy and air force behind your diplomats’ negotiations? That’s the whole ball game. We are reminded, in that latter situation, that when Churchill was preaching to Stalin about Poland in 1944, he made the mistake of mentioning the Vatican. Stalin barked in reply “How many divisions does the Vatican have?” The answer, of course, is none and Stalin’s point was that he didn’t give a damn about ideals or relations, he was interested in the exercise of raw power: something that Churchill had problems grasping. Churchill was considered by Stalin to be in the 19th century, a time that Austria’s von Metternich employed his larger-than-life personality to keep the peace in Europe for a century.

After you watch Dror Moreh’s “The Human Factor,” you would do well to think: which of the two factors is the more important? Since the United States, the world’s only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been counted upon to help negotiate a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, what’s important? Does the superior raw power of the Israelis count, a force that the Middle East country believes it should use to compel the other side to give up its dreams? Or should we say that because President Bill Clinton’s charm brought the two sides together in Washington and at Camp David, a feat that others holding the job were barely able to do?

Dror Moreh, with a résumé in cinematography, is in his third venture as director. His “The Gatekeepers” features interviews with all surviving members of the Shin Bet, or Israel’s security agency, and his “Sharon” focused on the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He possesses a keen eye and ear for the work of diplomats trying to bring about a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. You might leave the film heartbroken about the missed opportunities to get the sides together: with Palestinians under Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yassir Arafat, and with Israel under Prime Ministers Itzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu. First one side blinks at the point of signing a deal, then later the other side has a fit of anxiety refusing to affix a name to such a document. You feel like getting out of your seat and shouting, “Hey, I’m just a casual moviegoer with at least a passing interest in international politics. How come you guys, considered the most able to represent millions of countrymen, cannot have a kumbaya moment?”

During the key sessions, our Presidents, particularly Bill Clinton, made good use of the White House photographers and Moreh of his cinematographer Kobi Zaig-Mendez, to put us close-up to the major diplomats, either showing us archival film of negotiations in the United States or allowing us to hear talking heads like Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Gamal Helal, Aaron David Miller, Daniel C. Kurtzer. Kurtzer, who was our ambassador to Israel 2001 to 2005, strikes me as the man giving the clearest, most succinct anecdotes of the peace process.

Tensions between the Middle East adversaries have been so compelling that the mere fact that Israel’s PM Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat shook hands at the White House is momentous. Did I say that tensions are compelling? All the more within each country, since Israelis who watched and worried that they might not get the best deal gave impetus to Yigal Amir’s assassination, which in this documentary gives the impression that quite a number of Israelis were against any deal whatever and might threaten civil war if their citizens were forcibly removed from land handed over to Arafat. In fact the scariest part of the film shows thousands of Israeli protestors screaming and holding up signs “Rabin is a traitor. Rabin is a murderer.” If this reminds you of what happened in our own capital on January 6 of this year, you are a woke person.

The film is not without humor. Rabin was OK with shaking hands with Arafat but no kissing (Arabs are huggers like the French.) A practice session was held in which Rabin practiced shaking hands with his right hand and extending his left arm to keep Arafat at a distance.

You’ve got to think: history came so close to settling the long antipathy of the two sides. Why the failure? Perhaps it was because Arafat walked out on one meeting when he was expected to sign a document. Rabin was encouraged that Hafez-al-Assad in Syria was willing to cut a deal to recover the Golan Heights. But at the last minute, he said, no, he just could not do it. So near, and yet so far.

Let me add something that might offend Eugene Levitas, who supplied the music. “The Human Factor” is not a blockbuster. It is not “Godzilla vs. Kong” or any of the “Terminator” movies. We don’t need momentous themes by the orchestra to tell us when to get scared or excited or euphoric. Music in this case is intrusive, allowing the audience a breath during the few parts when the talking heads could talk and make their point clear without the blare of tumpets and the dolorous addition of strings. If this were a stage production, there would be no music at all. Since this is cinema, there may be a belief that the audience would not get its money’s worth unless the dialogue were drowned out by the orchestra. “The Human Factor” is not the only film to abuse the strains of the instrumental, but perhaps the motion picture companies could have their own negotiations and stop the tonal cacophonies. There’s as much chance of that as of getting the theaters to stop serving popcorn.

112 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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