Imagination is a beautiful tool but interesting stories don’t always have to be built from scratch. Sometimes real life trumps everything else. Take Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince. A documentary that feels like a thriller, it tells the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of one of the leading figures in Hamas on the surface, Israeli undercover agent for a decade underneath. Aside from unnecessary stylistic tics, it’s a compelling tale that locks on early before gradually tightening the vice.
Schirman’s masterstroke comes in his focus on Mosab and his handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak. With both participating, the film unfolds in a series of chapters that cut between interviews with them both. No stone is left unturned as Mosab’s upbringing and eventual recruitment are explored followed by his work as an informant and the trouble it eventually caused him.
There’s a matter of fact tone in the early exchanges, Mosab, codename The Green Prince, looking back plainly on the journey that took him into the clutches of his supposed enemy. He discusses frankly the reasoning, and the practical requirements of such a bold step. The chapter approach allows a number of topics and events to be tackled systematically, the switch between the two also an opportunity to examine their comments from a different perspective. Sometimes they match, sometimes they don’t.
Emotionally dry at the start, the growing bond between spy and handler establishes a connection that allows Schirman to draw on tears and grand statements to bring his film to a close. By the end its more than just a spy’s account of a decade spent feeding information against his own family. The relationship between Mosab and Gonen comes to the fore, both prepared to risk everything they have for each other.
For all the boys own adventure, and it does occasionally lapse into that, motivations surface to explain why someone would do what Mosab has just done. He’s remarkably unconflicted about his choices. Shame is the underlying emotion initially; shame of collaborating and then shame of not, before his desire to try and protect lives, particularly that of his father, takes over. Alongside the motivations, Schirman draws out the mechanics of espionage. The Israelis struggle to work out which information to act on, stage massive operations against Mosab to deflect attention and mock up furniture with bugs inside to listen in on big meetings.
Where The Green Prince goes wrong is the visual approach. Schirman seems so intent on turning his film into a thriller that he draws on genre trademarks. Every filter under the sun finds its way onto the camera. Text flashes up on screen like we’re in a Tony Scott film, there’s an abundance of overhead topographical shots following cars winding through streets and the picture repeatedly loses focus.
It’s all unnecessary because The Green Prince is already a complete and absorbing tale. It’s rare that the motivations and mechanics of espionage emerge so clearly, even rarer that the key figures are willing to give their side of the story. It’s a lonely, thankless task as Mosab’s fate reveals. Schirman succeeds in unravelling why someone might decide to do it.