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Film Reviews Spy secrets dazzle, but questions still ring in The Green Prince

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Green Prince
Written by
Nadav Schirman
Directed by
Nadav Schirman
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

While there may be no way of converting Middle East politics to narrative without sacrificing complexity for dramatic clarity, the choices made by filmmaker Nadav Schirman in telling the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef are conspicuously reductive. Basically a two-talking-head movie lavishly embellished with generous postproduction tension-boosting tricks, it's a movie that raises as many questions as it addresses, and which never quite convincingly answers even the most pressing one: Just what made the son of a radical Palestinian-liberation leader go to work as an Israeli spy?

Since coming out as a spy, author (Son of Hamas) and underground, U.S.-based political refugee in 2007, Mosab Hassan Yousef has confounded both critics and supporters alike. The son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a key Hamas figure and outspoken advocate of Palestinian independence by any means necessary, Yousef sits stiffly in front of Schirman's camera and, à la Errol Morris, recounts his story directly to the camera: Born with a sense of anti-Israeli militancy and outrage, he was arrested for purchasing illegal weapons in the mid-nineties and sentenced to jail. There, at least two things occurred that are beyond doubt. First, that he was appalled by the torture perpetrated by other Hamas prisoners on people suspected of betrayal, and second, that the Israeli secret-service agency Shin Bet saw an opportunity.

Enter Gonen Ben Yitzhak, The Green Prince's other primary talking head. An astute Israeli student and practitioner of the counterintelligence arts, Yitzhak's motivations for turning Yousef are obvious: Who could better provide the Israelis with intel regarding the movements and operations of Hamas – notorious for a rash of suicide bombings in the premillennial years – than the son of one of its ringleaders?

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When it comes down to talking about the means and methods of Israeli counterintelligence – how to identify a potential collaborator; how to woo and turn them; and the psychological tactics necessary to ensure their allegiance – The Green Prince is at its most engrossing. Yitzhak is a game and dramatic revealer of professional secrets, and his laying out of the Shin Bet rulebook resonates ominously throughout the post-9/11 era of anti-terrorist state practice. In describing how he worked not only to seduce Yousef but to protect and exploit him, he's telling a story that stands for perhaps countless others around the globe. This is the way espionage works in the post-Cold War world.

But when it returns to Yousef himself, as it does with an almost 50-per-cent regularity, the movie reverts to its enigma. For all his tales of disenchantment at Hamas militancy, and despite his insistence that he felt he was keeping people (including his father) from being killed by helping Shin Bet stay one step ahead of the next blast, Yousef fails to sell his own motivation and credibility (and yes: It's entirely possible he doesn't himself know why he did what he did). This means The Green Prince hits a wall of fog Schirman can only punch himself out of by resorting to tension-ratcheting technical gimmicks – faux drone surveillance footage, staticky jolt cuts, an insistently undulating musical score – that only seem more obviously overcompensatory because of the two-character structure he's chosen. As a result, we watch as The Fog of War drifts into Hard Copy. If Schirman had opened the movie up structurally, perhaps permitting more voices and points of view to intrude and illuminate, The Green Prince might have jumped this black hole.

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