Controversial Israeli film returns

Foxtrot,’ by Samuel Maoz

3 minute read
Told in three acts, 'Foxtrot' tells a difficult tale. (Photo via
Told in three acts, 'Foxtrot' tells a difficult tale. (Photo via

Directed by Samuel Maoz, Foxtrot, the acclaimed 2017 Israeli film that’s finally reaching U.S. shores, offers a meditation on war, duty, family, PTSD, and Israeli identity. But make no mistake: the film is much more interested in telling a compelling character story than scoring political or ideological points.

It’s an inventive, ingeniously structured story, one that masters multiple tones and doles out multiple gut-punching reveals. It’s unspeakably tragic, but also leaves room for poignancy and humor.

Three prespectives

The film is divided neatly into three acts: In the first, a well-to-do Tel Aviv couple (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) learn that their son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has been killed while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The second act shows us Jonathan in the army, serving at a remote checkpoint and dealing with the resulting ennui. The third act returns to his parents, but not in the way one might expect.

Somehow Foxtrot manages the jump from tragic first act to a second act that feels like a workplace comedy, while still maintaining a consistent tone. The key to the film is the creative connections between its three acts.

There are repeated themes involving service, long-held secrets, and regrets about moments of cowardice. And what seems like a throwaway gag involving a vintage nudie magazine pays off with an amazing monologue recalling Christopher Walken’s “gold watch” speech from Pulp Fiction. It had me reordering my list of the best movie scenes of 2017.

Ashkenazi, most recognizable to American audiences as the Israeli politician in 2016’s outstanding Joseph Cedar film Norman, is heartbreaking in the role of the father. Adler nails a tricky role that leaves her catatonic during the movie’s first half, but later makes up for lost time. Shiray is a revelation as Jonathan, the son.

Foxtrot won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival and went on to win eight Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars.) It was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar but not nominated. The film was also shown at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater February 15, 2018, as a Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival sneak preview, ahead of its U.S. release.

Controversy, as expected

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Israeli cultural product without global controversy. Foxtrot is billed as an Israeli/Swiss/German/French co-production and received some of its budget from a variety of Israeli government entities. However, this didn’t stop Miri Regev, Israel’s right-wing Minister of Culture and Sport and a former IDF spokesperson, from denouncing the film.

She decried it as "the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative” and insisted it was “boosting BDS and Israel's enemies.” Regev, according to multiple media reports, has not actually seen the film.

At issue is a scene in which senior Israeli army officials are shown covering up a horrific crime, a plot point that’s neither the movie’s central event nor even key to its story. But as a result of the controversy, the Israeli government announced it will boycott the opening of the Israeli Film Festival in Paris, at which Foxtrot will be shown.

Yes, Foxtrot has unlocked the unlikely achievement of bringing the Likud government and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to the same side.

Calling this film anti-Israel is ridiculous. It’s the equivalent of describing A Few Good Men as anti-American because Jack Nicholson ordered the Code Red. Foxtrot is an Israeli film shot in Israel by an Israeli director with an Israeli cast. To treat it as biased is to diminish and trivialize a formidable film that surely deserves to be considered and engaged with on its own terms. And as always, it’s ludicrous for anyone to denounce a film without actually seeing it.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich, was another film about Israel and cycles of violence that was hated, for very different reasons, both by Likudniks and BDSers. Much like that drama, Foxtrot cares enough about Israel to treat its issues and problems with seriousness. The more you care about Israel and its future, the more important you’re likely to find this movie.

What, When, Where

Foxtrot. Written and directed by Samuel Maoz. Opens in Philadelphia March 23, 2018. Philadelphia area showtimes.

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