As the great American journalist I.F. Stone once said, “All governments lie,” and they never lie more freely than when they are conducting the business of spying. For all the professions of national, professional and tribal loyalties that are earnestly voiced throughout Nadav Schirman’s documentary film “The Green Prince,” which opens Sept. 12, it is ultimately personal loyalty that governs the behavior of its protagonists. That outcome feels entirely appropriate in a film about the hallucinatory world of counter-intelligence, double agents, lies and betrayals that Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak inhabit. When everyone around you is a professional liar, you have to trust the person who tells you the truth, however reluctantly.
The events that Schirman recounts in the film began in 1983 and climaxed during the George W. Bush administration. But given the events of the summer of 2014, the story of Mosab, the eldest son of one of the founders of Hamas, and his unlikely pact with Gonen, a Shin Bet agent, seems more timely than ever.
At the film’s outset, each of these men speaks retrospectively about the need to contribute to the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. The 17-year-old Mosab, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, decided that his contribution would be an ill-conceived attempt to smuggle guns to Ramallah: “The goal was to kill Israelis,” he says. Despite his amateurish precautions, Mosab was apprehended and identified, and that event that threw him into Gonen’s path.
Access to a member of the equivalent of the opponent’s royal family and, more important, leverage over him, is the sort of opportunity of which a counter-intelligence operative dreams. Factor in Mosab’s youth and striking naiveté, and you have a made-to-order asset for a spy agency. One of the great strengths of “The Green Prince” is that Schirman and Gonen in particular bring a deliberate and methodical clarity to the workings of this hall of shifting mirrors.
The end result of the subtle collision of spy and counterspy was a 10-year-long collaboration, with Mosab providing high-quality intelligence and access to Hamas activities to his Israeli handler. As Gonen drily notes, “This is the equivalent of [Hamas recruiting] the son of the Israel prime minister.” As the film unfolds it offers a privileged glimpse into the complexities through which a person can be detached from his own community, even his family, and put into a situation in which the inexorable result is a complete reversal of beliefs and behavior.
Such reversals are like a contagion, though. Inevitably, a handler will come to feel invested in the well-being of an agent he is running and, as happened to Gonen and Mosab, the larger institutional loyalties may become outweighed by the ties between two agents who have shared more than just an occasional cup of coffee.
Consequently, when Gonen oversteps Shin Bet regulations for Mosab, it triggers a series of unexpected occurrences. In the end, the younger man leaves the Middle East for San Diego, asking for asylum from the U.S., only to have his past association with Hamas revealed to the highly suspicious agents of Homeland Security, who are only too happy to deport him to Jordan and certain execution.
Schirman tells this endlessly fascinating tale through a mixture of testimony by his two central figures, vivid surveillance footage from (one assumes) Israeli government sources, TV news clips and murky recreations. It is a style and structure that would feel rather forced were it not propelled forward with a relentlessly breathless rhythm. The most obvious cross-reference is Errol Morris’ most serious films, movies like “The Thin Blue Line” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” although one also thinks back to Schirman’s own previous film, “The Champagne Spy.”
The use of dramatic recreations, which are, by their nature, at least partly invention, in non-fiction film makes me uncomfortable. However, as Morris has argued in his defense of the recreations in “The Champagne Spy,” how else can you show an audience what happened? It’s not as if governments routinely keep audiovisual records of their most criminal or covert activities. They’re probably too busy thinking about their next lie.
“The Green Prince,” written and directed by Nadav Schirman, opens Friday, Sept. 12 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema (Broadway at 62nd Street) and the Angelika Film Center (W. Houston St. at Mercer St.).