For a satire to work, it must base itself in reality and attack its targets from there. Otherwise, its darts float, lost in space, hitting each other rather than what they intended to satirize. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” perhaps the greatest film satire ever made, worked because it was based on what were then Americans’ very real fears of a nuclear holocaust. What the movie showed, even at its most extreme moments, seemed all too possible. A more recent example is Adam McKay’s 2015 “The Big Short,” another movie whose satirical elements were based on historical truth – in that case, the financial collapse America suffered in 2008.
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In the history of Israeli satire, some filmmakers have understood this principle, resulting in such pictures as Ephraim Kishon’s “Sallah” and “Blaumilch Canal” and Assi Dayan’s “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer.” Though the last two examples took their satire in the direction of the surreal, their satiric essence remained sound, since it was based on a familiar, possible reality constructed out of a local truth.
To add television satire to the mix for a minute, I would say that many of the skits on “Eretz Nehederet” have been successful because they exaggerated an existing reality without losing their grip on it, allowing them to be both satirically accurate and highly entertaining.
Seen in this light, “The 90 Minute War,” Eyal Halfon’s new feature, is an utter failure. Though it is based on an existing reality – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the basic premise is so far-fetched that the film cannot possibly succeed as a skillful satire. Instead, it seems unfocused and even childish.
From the moment the movie reveals this premise, it does not stand a chance.
In “The 90 Minute War” – based on a book by Itay Meirson – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is set to be decided by a soccer match. If the Israeli team wins – and the Israelis seem certain it will – the Palestinians will have to leave the territories; if Israel loses, its Jewish inhabitants will all have to go back to their countries of origin. Halfon’s film ignores the question of how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (whose leaders in this futuristic reality are never shown) came up with such a solution, which is not just stupid but callous. Halfon apparently wanted to push the current desperate impasse to the point of absurdity, but even the absurd, in order to work, requires a measure of credibility, and there is none of that in this film. As a result, the plot scatters off in many directions and disintegrates.
Lack of commitment
The two men charged with organizing the game are the head of Israel’s soccer association (Moshe Ivgy) and his Palestinian counterpart (Norman Issa), who seem unable to settle on a single detail without a negotiation that nearly blows up the whole plan. Eventually they agree to hold the match in Portugal, since that country seems indifferent to the conflict. But then they start squabbling about who will be the referees; and so on.
Since this is an Israeli movie, it pays more attention to deliberations on the Israeli side than on the Palestinian one. One problem arises when the Israeli team’s German coach visits the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and becomes unsure of whether he is the right man for the job. Another emerges when a leading player on the Israeli team, who is an Arab citizen, has deep qualms about taking part in such a game. Halfon’s solution to the latter conflict, which might have been central but instead is given a marginal place, represents the film’s overall thoughtlessness, irresponsibility and lack of commitment. The same qualities are also evident in the dismissive way it handles a mother who protests against the game and its intended outcome. Barely given any screen time, she provides one brief moment of emotion before vanishing.
In general, there is something off-putting about the sloppiness and lack of awareness with which Halfon shapes his supposed satire. FIFA, the United Nations and the United States are all involved in an initiative to solve the conflict by expelling one of the two peoples living on the same strip of land. But the director does not know what to do with these plot components. And what about Gaza and Hamas? How are they involved?
Since the entire movie rests on a premise that is faulty in every way – ideologically, and as the basis for satire – the result cannot be anything but shallow. This not only dulls the satire, but suggests a flippant view of the serious predicament on which the story focuses. Even if Halfon chose to make the movie out of a sense of despair for the future of the country, the film says nothing valid about the situation that gives rise to such despair.
Halfon situates the story inside a “mockumentary”: An unseen team is following and documenting the events. This device, however, not only fails to contribute to the movie but only makes it more cumbersome and underscores its limitations. I’m not a big fan of mockumentaries: most movies in this genre have seemed to me gimmicky, with the single marvelous exception of Rob Reiner’s 1984 “This is Spinal Tap.” Reiner’s film was a success because it offered not just humor but a human and emotional aspect, which is utterly lacking from “The 90 Minute War.” The inevitable conclusion is that this is a film based on a mistake, causing every direction it takes to come out wrong as well. Worse, it seems like a joke, old-fashioned and even anachronistic in relation to the reality it engages with and within which it was made – and that’s not how you create a satire.
The soccer solution
Halfon has tried before to use soccer as a device for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its possible solutions: In 1991 he wrote the screenplay for Eran Riklis’s “Cup Final,” which also starred Ivgy. It was set during the Lebanon War, which coincided with the World Cup games, and at the time I objected to its use of the seemingly humanistic formula that if supposed enemies simply find common ground – in that case, love of soccer, and especially of the Italian team – they will be able to coexist. The political situation at the time was already too grave to be treated with such sentimentality. I respect Halfon’s desire to make films about the conflict, but he still has not found the right way to do so, as demonstrated also by his 1998 “Circus Palestina,” a kind of political allegory with surrealist components.
Of his movies to date, which also include “The Italians Are Coming” from 1996 and “What a Wonderful Place” in 2005 (his last feature before “The 90 Minute War”), the best so far was the 2003 “InSight,” based on a book by Rabbi Haim Sabato about a religious soldier who takes part in the Yom Kippur War and loses his best friend. That movie had a cinematic directness and an emotional complexity that Halfon has not managed to recreate since, certainly not in this most recent offering.
I chuckled a few times during the movie, and Ivgy and even more so Issa are far more skillful than the film in which they appear. But these are virtually the only good things I can say about “The 90 Minute War,” which ultimately is an utterly unimportant contribution to Israeli cinema and its exploration of the conflict with the Palestinians.