“Golda” belongs in the subgenre of historical films in which actors campaign for Oscar glory while slathered in enough makeup to render them nearly unrecognizable. Take, for instance, 2017′s “Darkest Hour,” featuring a heavily made-up Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill — the actor won the Academy Award for his trouble.
Now it’s Helen Mirren’s turn. As Golda Meir, the “Iron Lady” of Israel who served as prime minister from 1969-74, Mirren has stirred controversy for donning heavy prosthetics — topped off with a harsh, gray wig. Her eyes are the only humanly recognizable feature; she looks as if she were trapped in a bad costume.
Director Guy Nattiv (who won an Oscar for his 2018 short film “Skin”) reveals Mirren’s new visage as if suspensefully unwrapping a Christmas present; he initially shoots the actor from the back, then brings the camera around so we can see her physical commitment to the role. We’re supposed to marvel at this transformation, but I wrote in my notebook, “Oh my God, there’s so much makeup!”
All that cosmetic trouble is for naught; when we get the requisite footage of the real Meir, it’s evident that Mirren barely resembles her. And the real Meir has more energy and charisma in the few seconds when she’s shown onscreen than Mirren has in 100 minutes.
Much of the blame goes to writer Nicholas Martin. His screenplay has multiple scenes in Meir’s war room that bore rather than intrigue, and flat characterizations of her cabinet members that rarely allow for any complexity. Like “Darkest Hour,” “Golda” intends to show both the inner conflict and the political costs of decisions made by a leader during wartime.
Unlike that film’s subject, Meir is not fleshed out at all here. Instead, she’s a series of actorly tics that Mirren repeats ad nauseam, framed with so many shots of her famous shoes that the film feels like a Luis Buñuel homage. Since Meir was a known chain smoker, Mirren also wields the prop that can serve as an actor’s crutch, a cigarette.
When the film opens, Meir is at the 1974 Agranat Inquiry, the hearing that occurred after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that “Golda” will focus on in flashback. Her decisions during the conflict are being called into question by Shimon Agranat (Henry Goodman), president of the Israeli Supreme Court. These choices were complicated and influenced by the Cold War conflict between Israel’s ally, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
During her questioning, Meir uses her current, barely finished cigarette to light her next one. She also smokes while undergoing secret cancer treatments, which the film treats as shorthand for her defiant personality.
From here, “Golda” flashes back to Oct. 5, 1973, the day before the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Arab states backed by Egypt and Syria. Nattiv and Martin assume the viewer knows about this conflict, so they offer little information about the men advising and surrounding Meir or much background on the prior conflicts that shaped the moment we are witnessing.
What we can glean is that Meir had to make some initial decisions based on conflicting intel regarding whether there would be an attack on Israel on Oct. 6 during Yom Kippur. When war became imminent, Meir strategized with her Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger) and Chief of General Staff David Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi).
When the fighting begins, Nattiv makes the unwise decision to present several scenes of Meir and her advisers listening to the death screams of soldiers while standing around looking concerned. The diminished effect of “telling, not showing” gives the film the feel of a cheap TV movie, which is what “Golda” resembles more often than not.
Additionally, Meir’s conversations with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber, nailing the voice), billed as the film’s high points in terms of watching two great actors go at it, are treated as mere soundbites and clever quips the filmmakers can use in ads and trailers. Like Mirren, Schreiber is reduced to playing a caricature, not a person.
The end result is an inert bore. “Golda” fails as a character study and as an exploration of wartime mechanics. It succeeds only as Oscar bait.
Directed by Guy Nattiv. Written by Nicholas Martin. Starring Helen Mirren, Liev Schreiber, Lior Ashkenazi, Rami Heuberger. 100 minutes. At Dedham Community Theatre, Landmark Kendall Square. PG-13 (for smoking — I kid you not)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.