'King Bibi' Explores How Benjamin Netanyahu Became Unbeatable

The documentary "King Bibi" studies how Netanyahu morphed from a shy young man into the arrogant and aggressive politician he is today

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Netanyahu in a scene from “King Bibi.” A deep behavioral, mental and existential metamorphosis.
Netanyahu in a scene from “King Bibi.” A deep behavioral, mental and existential metamorphosis.
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Channel 10 broadcast a documentary series by journalist Raviv Drucker about six of the country’s prime ministers. The series dealt with the personality, biography and historical importance of David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. The series was done well and it was important because it provided a broad historical and political context and did not avoid asking questions and leveling criticism. It was clear that the series’ consideration of the past originated in the present, in which Israel has been ruled for a lengthy period by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political career shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Drucker’s series did not consist of documentary films but of reports; however, the line that divides documentaries from television reports has long since become blurred, for good and for ill. Some reports are actually short documentaries, and some documentaries seem to be extended reports. The difference lies in the amount of creative thought that’s invested in them.

Drucker’s series is also important in light of the fact that only a handful of Israeli documentary films have investigated the character of the country’s leaders. A rare example is last year’s “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue,” a film by Yariv Mozer and Yael Perlov. It is based on an interview Ben-Gurion gave in April 1968 at Kibbutz Sde Boker, when he was 82, to a young American, Clinton Bailey, whom the former prime minister chose personally. Mozer and Perlov discovered the interview in the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem while they were trying to reconstruct the forgotten and ostensibly lost 1969 feature film “42:6,” by the acclaimed documentarist David Perlov (Yael Perlov's father) about Ben-Gurion, which was yanked from movie theaters immediately after its release.

Trailer for the film 'King Bibi.'

“Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” was a lovely, moving film that aroused longing – whether justified or not – for a different form of leadership. In it, the “Old Man” sets forth his political worldview a year after the Six-Day War and describes his vision for the future of the state whose establishment he declared. But it’s an almost lone example of a documentary about a local leader.

American-style politician

A recent addition to the documentaries about local leaders is Dan Shadur’s “King Bibi.” The film takes its title from the May 28, 2012, cover story of Time magazine (inspired by the name of the blues giant B.B. King). Still, Netanyahu had been declared “king” even earlier (as had others before him) in the rhapsodic cries “Bibi King of Israel” chanted at Likud meetings and demonstrations. Compiled entirely from archival footage, some of which was new to me and amusing as well (particularly from the early part of his career), “King Bibi” aims to portray the way in which Benjamin Netanyahu became Benjamin Netanyahu. Even his detractors find it difficult today to picture the country without Netanyahu as its leader – at least according to the film’s narration, spoken by the actor Alon Aboutboul. Does the film succeed in its aim? Only partially.

“King Bibi” grounds its narrative – which depicts the transformation undergone by Netanyahu – in two elements, one of which envelops the film, while the other is intimated. The outer casing underscores the fact that Netanyahu grew up in the U.S., where he held his first representational posts and where he learned how to be an American-style politician.

The narration is businesslike, but mostly unnecessary for an Israeli audience that has experienced the Netanyahu era – though not for a foreign audience, which is possibly the film’s main target. We also hear passages from the doctrine of Lilyan Wilder, a well-known public-speaking coach; Netanyahu was a pupil of hers in the U.S. These segments add an ironic dimension to “King Bibi” by showing how Netanyahu complied obediently with Wilder’s theoretical notions about the effectiveness of rhetoric, though at times in his career he also departed from her instructions.

Irony is also apparent when Netanyahu, then deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, faces the cameras in one of his first public appearances, during the 1982 Lebanon War. That was after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Israel-U.S. relations were badly strained, and Netanyahu shows up unshaven, with his hair unkempt. That was the last time the public would see him like that, the narration notes. Was it a strategic move, aimed at showing the resilient young sabra caught in a crisis and seeking viewer empathy at a crucial moment?

From the film "King Bibi."Credit: Yaakov Saar, GPO

As for the intimated element in the film – which could serve as the basis for a melodrama – that concerns Netanyahu’s relationship with his father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu; and his coping with the memory of his brother, Yoni Netanyahu. At the very beginning of the film, even before Netanyahu has realized his leadership aspirations, his father asserts that if Yoni hadn’t been killed at Entebbe he would undoubtedly have become the country’s leader. Is Netanyahu’s story that of a son who tries to please his grim-faced father and whose unbridled ambition stems from his efforts to free himself from the giant shadow cast by his brother’s death? Had the film intimated that these elements helped shape Netanyahu’s development, it could have acquired a measure of depth, which it now lacks.

Since there is not much that is new in the film, I found its primary interest to lie in being able to follow the way Netanyahu’s face has changed across the decades. It’s not just that time’s passage has left its mark, but the movie reflects the transformation of a young man, a bit embarrassed, hesitant and even shy at the outset, into the Netanyahu we’re familiar with today, arrogant and aggressive. This is clearly a far deeper behavioral, mental and existential metamorphosis.

Face is everything in cinema, and face – Netanyahu’s face – is also everything in Shadur’s film. However, watching its evolution does not make up for what’s lacking in “King Bibi” – namely ideology. We are witness to the way Netanyahu applies what he learned from the political reality during his time in Washington, but the portrayal of these developments is not utilized to illuminate the political and leadership moves that have made him a figure who is so securely ensconced in power that even to suggest trying to unseat him is considered futile. The film also makes no effort to account for the loyalty and admiration that Netanyahu arouses in his voters. As a result, “King Bibi” feels hollow, and its ideological reticence and ambivalence sometimes lends it the character of a publicity movie.

There’s one wonderful moment in the film, when Netanyahu and Moshe Katsav – who would become Israel’s president and was later convicted of rape – are sitting side by side along with Yitzhak Rabin and chuckling. It’s a highly charged moment that seems to encompass the entire essence of this land. Netanyahu’s changing face is the face of the country, so it’s a pity that the film doesn’t take the physical portrait it creates for us as the point of departure to articulate a broad theory about that essence. After all, every king has a kingdom.

"King Bibi." Written and directed by Dan Shadur; edited by Neta Dvorkis, Dan Shadur; sound design by Itzik Cohen; music by Karni Postel

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