Director Nadav Schirman distills the war between Palestinians and Israelis down to a pair of dueling talking heads in The Green Prince, a documentary carved explicitly from the Errol Morris mode à la The Fog of War. Mosab Yousef details his transition as the son of a prominent Hamas leader to a Shin Bet spy, while Gonen Yitzhak explains his role in luring Mosab over to the Shin Bet and their operations carried out over the course of a decade from 1997 to 2007. Schirman allows each man to explain his motivations unabetted by intruding or directing questions, but the proceedings have such a rigidly determined structure, amplified by chapter titles, that the power and conviction in their recountings deteriorate into a placid series of back-and-forths. Such an approach renders the immense complexities informing each side’s dilemmas too simplistically, as a means for a more digestible, straightforward narrative of familial betrayal and conventional thriller-level espionage.
Schirman’s aesthetic approach is flawed on a fundamental level, as he resorts to affected editing and stylized reenactment to supplement the narratives being offered. These offenses can be small, such as Mosab’s introduction, where he’s sitting in darkness before lights slowly reveal his face, or more of an affront, like the inexplicable decision to cut to faux-surveillance footage of Mosab while he’s talking, a visual marker as likely to be found in a murder-mystery television news special. Such a banal cue isn’t inherently problematic, but Schirman’s deployment of it, as well as the use of a slew of static-y, white-noise cuts, intimates a filmmaker content to employ post-production effects without locating them within the diegesis itself.
Those problems, however, don’t hamper the film’s fluid, often concise function as an informational doc, since a decade’s worth of political and religious conflicts are effectively whittled down into a self-contained whole with decidedly approachable entry points. Schirman and editors Joel Alexis and Sanjeev Hathiramani are most effective at managing a vacillation between archive footage, reenactment, and talking heads without losing track of whose voice is dictating which line of thought, which is particularly impressive in the film’s first third given the plethora of terms, names, and allegiances dished out. Yet that stylistic clarity is as much a product of the film’s often strained cinematic high points, such as when Mosab is told “welcome to the slaughter house” by a prison guard, a line clearly inserted to elicit a thriller-order ethos that’s too easy a gesture to the ubiquitous violence of the war’s innumerous military and civilian conflicts.
Perhaps the film’s strongest narrative points involve Mosab’s relationship with his father and Mosab’s explanation that his allegiances remained with his imprisoned father all along. In fact, Mosab joined the Shin Bet in order to prevent the murders of Hamas leaders such as his father, agreeing to assist the Israelis so long as Palestinians would be imprisoned rather than executed for their crimes, stated explicitly when Mosab says to those who still believe him a traitor that “you are not assassinated today because of this arrangement.” Mosab’s father, however, still believes him a traitor and has disowned him much like the majority of Palestinians, a point Schirman makes a bit too much on the nose by having Mosab deliver a lengthy speech near the film’s end, culminating in choking back and wiping away tears. As moving as Mosab’s gradual swelling of emotion is, the scene ultimately reinforces a sense that The Green Prince is a documentary more interested in readily discernable cadences and cues than ambiguity or complicating detail.