The Gatekeepers tells the story of Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet. The vehicle for that history is a bit of a surprise: Moreh manages to get all six of the surviving former heads of the organization to discuss in detail the evolution of Shin Bet since the 1967 Six-Day War. It's as if an American director gathered the likes of Robert Gates, George Tenet, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus and grilled them on the specifics of CIA counterterrorism strategy.
Moreh coaxes astounding material out of these men, which makes his structural decisions in putting together The Gatekeepers a no-brainer. The standard rhythm of alternating talking-head testimony with archival footage of the events described is so often simply the default setting for documentary films, but in The Gatekeepers, the remarkable candor of the interviewees makes it essential. It'd have been unthinkable not to place the interviews front and center.
The Six-Day War marked a turning point for Shin Bet, the point at which the group's focus turned much more intensely to counter-terrorism. Their history since then has reflected the constant conflict in the region, and so it also makes sense to present that history chronologically, as Moreh does. Major events, tackled for the most part in the order they happened in, are used as the focal point for each of the movie's sections, from the war to the Oslo Accords to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination to the Second Intifada of the early 2000s.
Given the sensitive information, and the thorny moral and ethical issues at play, you might expect the heads of Shin Bet to hedge and stonewall. So their openness is impressive and refreshing—and sometimes frightening. When Moreh presses former Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom on his role in ordering the execution of two Arab bus hijackers who had already been restrained and cuffed during the notorious 1984 Bus 300 Affair, Shalom responds blithely. "In the war on terror, forget about morality," he says.
Shalom is easily the most fascinating figure here. Early on, he talks about how he and many others supported the idea of a Palestinian state after the Six-Day War, but as the debates over that became tiresome, he eventually welcomed the rise of terrorism because it gave Shin Bet a job to do. He also bluntly states that no Israeli leader ever considered the Palestinian people much beyond the containment of violence, whether that leader was Menachem Begin or Golda Meir. Later, he even compares Israeli behavior to that of the Germans in World War II—with respect to occupation, not to genocide: "We've become cruel." It's like watching Reagan's CIA chief William Casey come to the conclusion that maybe we were too rough on the Soviets in the '80s.
Other interviewees may not be quite as overtly provocative, but their segments are no less revelatory. Many wax philosophical. Ami Ayalon, who led Shin Bet in the late '90s, talks of how Israeli wins in battles are not synonymous with victories. For Yaakov Peri, it's the memories of the wives and children of men who Shin Bet captured in their homes that stick with him. "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist," he adds. That certainly seems true of Yuval Diskin, the man to leave the post most recently. When Moreh asks him his thoughts on the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israeli intellectual who predicted in 1968 that retaining the occupied territories would eventually erode Israel's moral stature, he responds, "I agree with every word he wrote."