By Mike Dub
Earlier this week, in his review of Kill the Messenger, Daniel Barnes echoed a common complaint about a great deal of films that are based on true stories: “It only shows how much more interesting an intelligent documentary… would be than this weak and warmed-over biopic treatment.” Biopics – at least the ones that aren’t obsequiously handed Oscars (Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, ladies and gentlemen) – have rightfully been criticized for their myriad shortcomings. These problems are not so much inherent in the “genre,” but instead seem to be product of a kind of compulsion on the part of filmmakers to adhere to a style of biopic that was cemented in the 1930s. Biopics tend to span too great a period of time, and yet focus too myopically on the development of the central character at the expense of all others; they prefer to turn drama into action, rather than the other way around; at times, they package a person as an ideology. In short, they are burdened by their audience’s (perceived) expectation of palatable entertainment in a way that most documentaries are not.
For precisely those reasons, though, Nadav Schirman’s fascinating but un-enthralling espionage documentary The Green Prince could very well become a good narrative thriller, whenever Kathryn Bigelow gets her hands on it. It tells the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a high-ranking player in Hamas (and son of one of the founding members) who in his twenties became a spy for Israeli Intelligence against the terrorist organization he grew up with. Over the course of a decade, he provided valuable information to his “handler,” Israeli Intelligence officer Gonen Ben Yitzhak, and was responsible for the capture of dozens of Hamas leaders and soldiers.
The documentary is based on Yousef’s memoirs and is told through direct-address interviews with Yousef and Yitzhak, who couldn’t fit their roles better if they had come from Central Casting. Yousef is lean and good-looking, and talks spiritedly of his adventures with an easy charisma that you would expect more from a former quarterback than a retired spy. Yitzhak, on the other hand, is broad, officious, and speaks with the careful experience of a professional interrogator. If real life had trailers, surely at some point a disembodied voice would have declared, “The only thing they had to rely on… was each other.”
More importantly, their dual narration of the film provides rare insight into each man’s personal perspective, and the focus on individual experience mercifully eschews any grandiose statements on war and peace. The extent to which the film comments on the violence of that world is limited to Yousef’s own voice: the heinous acts of torture he witnessed at the hands of Hamas, violence which caused him to lose faith in the organization; the constant threat of exposure; and his desire to protect his father from being assassinated by the very people he helped. But violence, especially for a terrorist leader and an intelligence officer, is inescapable, and it is a wise, and even brave, decision by Schirman to allow his subjects to speak for themselves, without ideological ornamentation.
As captivating as it is to peer into the world of high-stakes espionage amid the violence and chaos of the Middle East, Schirman struggles to come up with a visual design that is as compelling as the story. Most of the story’s situations are recreated through a series of dramatic interpretations that are sometimes slick, but more often just hammy. The go-to effect for much of the film is a helicopter shot (or drone shot, more likely) that looks down on a secret spy meeting, with a scope overlay to signify official surveillance footage. It’s an effect that comes across as tacky even in a summer blockbuster.
The Green Prince may not be a great movie, but it tells an incredible story of two men who are surprisingly commanding on-screen. That energy fizzles out in the second half, when we start seeing the same shots from previous reenactments over again. But with its personal perspective, aversion toward overt political messages, and relatively short time frame (ten years is like one week in biopic-years), it could make a successful transition into a Hollywood thriller. Then again, they could just turn it into Lethal Weapon 5.