Restrained, clinical, and yet full-hearted, The Green Prince is one of the year’s, and maybe ultimately the decade’s, great spy stories. A two-hander about betrayal, shame, honor, and murky motivations, it includes nothing more than two men — one an Israeli intelligence operative and the other his Palestinian source — telling their part of a sprawling and many years’ long operation to undermine Hamas. Director Nadav Schirman stitches together their crisp, well-honed interview segments with a textured mosaic of surveillance footage (some of it apparently authentic) and the fortunately occasional live-action reenactment into a nearly seamless whole. The result both outdoes the invented drama of many a spy thriller (see Anton Corbijn’s pallid take on A Most Wanted Man for a recent example) and raises more ethical quandaries than can be easily dispensed with.
The source, Mosab Hassan Yousef, is the West Bank-raised eldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of Hamas. After his father, who gave many fiery speeches denouncing Israel, was imprisoned for over a year, Mosab became an angry 17-year-old wanting revenge. “The goal was to kill Israelis,” he says about the night he and a friend were caught with firearms. “[It was] my chance to be a hero.” Incredibly, while in prison, Mosab was recruited by the Israeli internal intelligence service, Shin Bet. While Schirman doesn’t delve deep enough into this part of Mosab’s transformation, part of what turned him against the ideology he and his siblings had been steeped in since birth was hearing the screams of fellow prisoners being tortured and killed by Hamas members who suspected them of collaborating. Starting with his release in 1997 and with the proviso that he not be used in any assassination schemes, Mosab started spying for his once sworn enemy.
Even years later, Mosab’s Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, still seems unable to believe his luck at having such a source. As wry and self-deprecating as Mosab is earnest and emotional, Gonen talks with a visible pride in his tradecraft. He emphasizes the need for authenticity in the relationship and the careful nurturing required. Both men brush aside the idea that their relationship was based on money or some desire for fame. In their telling, Gonen had a job to do, and Mosab was motivated by a fundamental repugnance for Hamas’s terrorist tactics. The reasoning for their actions was as unvarnished as the execution was gnarled in complexities.
After a dramatic setup, the middle section of The Green Prince becomes a primer in running a source. Under Gonen’s careful direction, Mosab provided intelligence from the highest echelons of a group like Hamas even while events on the ground keep scrambling the calculus. Within a few years of Mosab’s recruitment, the second intifada erupted and a wave of bloody terrorist bombings, many claimed by Hamas, blasted through Israel. This ratcheted up the pressure on Gonen — who admits in a moment of powerful honesty that he wanted to go to the West Bank and start shooting Palestinians — to deliver actionable intelligence and save lives. In this part of the film, Schirman has a tendency to overuse the satellite map topography and low, throbbing score familiar to foreign-affairs documentaries of this stripe. But he keeps a laser focus on his subjects, letting them deliver their story in bracing, dramatically paced moments.
The film’s third act, in which both players are exiled, is almost the most intriguing, because it comes closest to unraveling the mystery of Mosab. At no point in the film does he express anything but love for his family. But although it’s clear from early on that he’s no longer with them, there’s never an indication that he blamed them for the actions of Hamas, what he calls “the family business.” Like most informants, Mosab pays a high price for what he has done, and as he ruefully points out, “there is no celebration.” Although he and Gonen achieve their own kind of victory and vindication at the end, neither pretends there was anything easy about what they did. The Green Prince is a spy story, after all, and in all the most truthful ones, everyone gets burned and betrayed whether they did the right thing or not.