Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jonathan Gruber
Writer: Jonathan Gruber
Cast: Menachem Begin, Yossi Klein Halevi, Joseph Lieberman, and a large array of commentators
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/6/21
Opens: June 7, 2021 in theaters. June 9, 2021 streaming

Bibi Netanyahu, who goes unmentioned in “Upheaval,” has been in office since 2009, so many of you have not known any Israeli leaders before him. Jonathan Gruber, who is considered by some an ideal documentarian in that he has the knack to establish trust with his subjects, now presents what he considers a nuanced portrait of one of that country’s most successful and controversial prime ministers. Menachem Begin, whose every moment in life (if you believe the plaudits that have rained down on Begin,) has thought only about the Jewish people from the time he was arrested by the Soviet Union in 1940 for the “crime” of Zionism and sent to the gulag as an “agent of British Imperialism.” This would be a charge that the Soviets would have been difficult to make credible given that Begin was no friend of the British, determined in his role with the extremist group Irgun to throw off the occupation of Palestine and kick the British out.

As we see soon enough in this documentary, Begin, freed after an eight-year sentence from the gulag (which we see in its forty degrees below zero Celsius in some of the stunning archival film), heads to Palestine where he discovers (duh) that the UK is not excited about letting Jews into the territory that it holds as a protectorate. Sought by the British government for Zionist activities, Begin changes his image several times to avoid capture. Soon, however, we see the first mistake that the Zionists make in a massacre in Deir Yassin, where many unarmed men, women and children are killed during the fighting between Palestinian Arabs and Jews.

Director Gruber, using an array of commentators but deliberately avoiding all narration, allows us to see that Israel, however small, has never been united, an initial source of concern being the political infighting between Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Begin’s turf is the Irgun, the most radical freedom fighters but considered as terrorists by its opponents, while Ben-Gurion’s is the fighting force of the more moderate Haganah. The Atalena Affair involves ship loaded with military weapons and fighters for the newly independent Israel, was confronted by the army ordered to attack the Irgun, considering a radical faction that should have agreed to merge with the regular army.

Until Begin was to come under attack by large segments in Israel and by much of the entire world for allowing Lebanese Christians to massacre Palestinians in Lebanon, Gruber holds the man up as an icon of bravery and determination, although quite amenable to negotiating with Anwar Sadat of Egypt, even giving up the Sinai and uprooting Jewish settlers after violent confrontations. Begin strives to create a feeling of equality between Ashkenazim, who are settlers in Israel from Europe, and Sephardim, who arrived from the Middle East and North Africa. Understanding that Israel is a land of refugees, Begin is no hypocrite: he allows into the country Vietnamese boat people and then Jews from Ethiopia, the latter making a truly multicultural haven of his country.

He takes responsibility for ordering the bombing of Iraq’s Osirik nuclear reactor, condemned by some gutless people in the international community. Like President Monroe in our own country who declares no toleration for outside forces in the Americas, he announces Begin Doctrine: that Israel must be prepared to initiate preventive wars where necessary against its enemies.

Gruber is clear on his mission: to show Begin as a man who takes responsibility for screw-ups of his own generals such as the disastrous killing of Palestinians in Lebanon by that country’s Christians, though interviewers do not hesitate to note that General Ariel Sharon had Begin twisted around his finger, getting Begin’s approval to take mortal actions against Israel’s northern neighbor, even taking the war against the PLO in south Lebanon all the way to Beirut.

We come away with the one word that best describes the principal subject: he is a mensch, meaning literally a man, connoting one who is a genuine human being. This is one doc not spoiled by overreach of the subjects interviewed, has archival film that may not have been seen before by an international audience, and gives Begin the recognition that the writer-director thinks he deserves.

88 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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