The six men interviewed in director Dror Moreh's "The Gatekeepers" are not what you would call bleeding-heart liberals.
In fact, the six the former directors of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, from 1980 to 2011 are easily the toughest counterterrorism fighters you'd expect to see in a movie that didn't have "Expendables" in the title.
They were fighting the War on Terror before it had a name. They developed Shin Bet into an intelligence-gathering institution that could intercept attacks. They ordered targeted assassinations against Palestinian terrorist leaders, and in some cases oversaw interrogation programs that some would call torture.
Considering their toughness, and their shared history of dealing with threats against Israelis, the conclusions they reach at the end of Moreh's absorbing, thought-provoking (and Oscar-nominated) documentary are breathtaking until you hear one of the men say, "when you retire [from Shin Bet], you become a bit of a leftist."
Moreh employs a direct interviewing style, reminiscent of Errol Morris' work, to get the men to talk about their days leading Shin Bet. Some are expansive in their answers, others evasive.
Take, for example, the most senior of the group, Avraham Shalom. Seen today, he looks like a kindly grandpa, the sort who hands out butterscotch candies. But when he talks about the missions Shin Bet carried out during his tenure, from 1980 to 1986, his reputation as a hardened spy and a bully (as others describe him) starts to make sense.
Shalom deflects questions about the incident that ended his Shin Bet career, when agents pulled Palestinian suspects off a bus and, while they were in custody, executed them.
"I didn't want any live terrorists in court," Shalom declares matter-of-factly. When Moreh presses a question about the morality of such actions, Shalom answers back sharply, "In the war on terrorism, forget about morality. Find morals in the terrorists first."
The problem with that kind of thinking, as Yuval Diskin (head of Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011) says, is "to the enemy, by the way, I was also a terrorist."
Through the interviews and well-chosen archival footage, Moreh traces the modern history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film covers the rise of urban suicide bombings, both Intifadas, peace talks with the PLO, the political acceptance of Hamas and the rise of a far-right Israeli underground that was to Shin Bet as dangerous as the Palestinian terrorists. It was this underground that led to Shin Bet's greatest security failure: the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist.
The six Shin Bet leaders sometimes get a little twinkle in their eye discussing spycraft, such as when Carmi Gillon (who resigned as head of Shin Bet after Rabin's death) talks about an operation that planted plastic explosives in the cellphone of a terrorist mastermind. But to a man, they also talk about the limitations of military tactics in securing peace and each advocates a two-state solution, creating a Palestinian nation as Israel's peaceful neighbor.
"We wanted security, and got more terrorism," says Ami Ayalon, who took over Shin Bet after Gillon resigned. "The Gatekeepers" makes the riveting argument that now is the time for the Israeli government to try another approach.
Six former leaders of Israeli's secret service talk candidly about missions, spycraft and the slippery nature of fighting terror.
Where • Opens Friday, March 29.
When • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Rating • PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images.
Running time • 97 minutes; in Hebrew with subtitles.