Richard Trank’s documentary The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers is dressed to the nines in pomp and patriotism, which seems meant to hide the fact that the film offers very little in the way of valuable reporting or insider information. Adapted from his book of the same name, Yehuda Avner recites, via extensive interviews and voiceovers, the formulation and history of Israel through his time as aid and speechwriter to prime ministers such as Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin. The setup is ripe for divulging the undisclosed bureaucratic struggles and goings-on that Avner surely must have been associated with, but Avner seems to wrestle the film away from Trank and present Israel as a faultless nation free of blemish. It feels like a missed opportunity that Trank doesn’t appear to press Avner on the more covert (read: more interesting) aspects of his experiences, as Trank steps aside from his subject and showcases Avner’s recounting as a droning professorial history lesson that far overstays its welcome.
That’s not to say Avner doesn’t provide any amusing anecdotes, even if these memories routinely feel like silly diversions meant to consolidate culturally different societies on a fundamentally human level. In one such notable story, Avner speaks intimately of an aging Harry Truman when the former found himself at the ex-president’s home in Independence, Missouri. But it’s a humorously anachronistic meeting between Eshkol and then-president Lyndon Johnson at the latter’s ranch in Texas that more expressively details events missing from historical records, but kept alive in personal recollection. Johnson, dressed in simple slacks and a cowboy hat, talks foreign policy with a formal Eshkol as they stroll through his ranch until they discover a sick newborn calf. Both begin to care for it, as, much to Johnson’s surprise, Eshkol has some veterinary experience.
For a documentary about the political history of Israel, Trank’s schmaltzy film is content in only reciting national successes rather than creating a complex portrait of affiliations with a powerful governing party. If it weren’t for the distracting slew of Oscar winners providing the voices for prominent Israeli figures (which explicitly seems like an attempt at accessibility), the film’s pat and ultimately pedantic execution would appear more at home as a generic History Channel special. It’s in Trank’s repetitive use of loud and emotion-cuing music during moments of overwhelming patriotism that exposes the film’s lack of insight; Avner will more than happily explain harmless administrative tales, but anything of substance is effectively drowned out.