The Gatekeepers opens Friday (see times below)

Our rating:

The Gatekeepers opens in sobering fashion. A few years ago, the adjective might have been “chilling” or “shocking,” but a culture of drone strikes and Wikileaks videos has acclimated us to the sight of eye-in-the-sky surveillance and the vaporization of a van driving down a city street.

The man narrating is an Israeli intelligence official named Yuval Diskin, the mastermind of targeted assassinations (a practice now enthusiastically employed by the Obama administration). Perhaps it’s his relative youth and the freshness of his experiences, but of all the officials in this film, Diskin seems the most uncomfortable with his legacy.

In this Oscar-nominated documentary, the subjects are former directors of Israel’s Shin Bet, the agency responsible for security within the country’s borders (the more notorious Mossad is charged with foreign intelligence). Director Dror Moreh persuaded six retired agency directors, dating back to 1980, to speak on camera about their agency’s operations.

Diskin, like the others, held office after the Six Day War of 1967 that enlarged Israel’s borders and ushered in the era of the West Bank and Gaza occupations. Shin Bet’s job was to root out not merely Arab unrest but Jewish extremist factions as well. The film’s subjects relive their failures as well as their successes: One, Carmi Gillon, insists that his efforts to beef up Yitzhak Rabin’s security detail were rebuffed by the prime minister himself, a bravado that was met with his assassination by Yigal Amir. Another boss, Yaakov Peri, admits that he was completely blindsided by a popular Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, the First Intifada.

If central casting were charged with picking actors for a John Le Carré story about aging spymasters, they could do worse than the six men assembled here. They range from the stiff, taciturn Diskin to the sophisticated, handsome Peri to the most senior of the group, Avraham Shalom.

With his impish grin and his checked shirt and suspenders, Shalom gives the impression of being in full-time grandfather mode these days. But he’s terrifying. While it’s startling to hear the others describe him as an arrogant bully during his career, it’s even more shocking to learn of his actions regarding a bus hijacking that occurred in 1984. Two Palestinian hijackers were taken alive after a lengthy standoff and then summarily executedtheir skulls were smashed inon the orders of Shalom. Three decades later, the topic still turns Shalom into an evasive, blame-shifting camera subject.

While the film is driven by talking-head narration, we’re also shown an extensive, well-edited array of archival photos and films that underscores the passions and violence of the country and the disputed territories. The Gatekeepers probably won’t surprise many people who have followed the region closely over the years; there’s little sense of state secrets being revealedthese guys are too old, too smart and too loyal. Instead, the film humanizes a group of spymasters we suspect were pretty cold-blooded in their day.

Still, it’s all the more remarkable when, reflecting on the past four decades of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Shalom compares the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank to Germany’s World War II occupations (he specifically excludes the Holocaust from the comparison). The occupation has made Israel “cruel,” he says, hesitating before using the word.

But they’re no softies: Gillon recounts his greatest success, the 1996 assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the chief bombmaker of Hamas, to which the filmmakers provide an artful visual accompaniment. Don’t be surprised if this operation, which featured a booby-trapped cell phone, shows up in a spy thriller near you. Perhaps it already has.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Eyes in the sky.”