A little inside dope: At December's voting meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle -- where a winning film must receive the most points and be on a majority of ballots -- "The Gatekeepers" got the highest endorsement of exactly half the group. No one else could be budged. The film didn't win.

It didn't win the Oscar Sunday night, either, despite being the most deserving nominee. But the polarizing effect of Israeli director Dror Moreh's controversial documentary -- in which six former heads of Israel's CIA assess their country's philosophy about terrorism -- has generated vitriolic responses in right-leaning Israeli press, and some of the best reviews of the year. It's the "Zero Dark Thirty" of nonfiction: Has the use of black sites, torture, murder, illegal rendition and intractable opposition really served the people? Not in the case of Israel, at least according to the ex-Shin Bet directors, the very people who instituted the policies; Yoram Cohen, Benjamin Netanyahu's current security chief, is conspicuously not in the movie.

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And how does "The Gatekeepers" work as a movie? As a hair-raising thriller, and as an act of understated vengeance -- the viewer is astonished to hear these men telling their stories, but the heads of what is also known as Shabak are eager to assert where they were right and others were wrong, and that current policies are largely self-destructive.

Naturally, "The Gatekeepers" is also about the men involved and as such is a remarkable character study. Watching the avuncular-looking Avraham Shalom talk about the cold-blooded executions of captured Palestinian kidnappers is literally spine-tingling; the historical assessment of antiterrorism, by the men who more or less invented it, serves as a black-curtained window onto the dark side. Likewise, the discussion of some of the usually effective Shin Bet's glaring failures -- not preventing the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, a moment that changed the peace process forever. All the men have fascinating stuff to say. Moreh, who only interjects when he needs to, is smart enough to get out of the way and let them say it.

PLOT Interviews with the six surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. RATING PG-13 (violent content, disturbing images)


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BOTTOM LINE Revelatory, controversial and startlingly frank documentary in which Israel's security policies are assessed and criticized, by the men who know whence they speak. (In Hebrew with English subtitles)