Areas don't get a whole lot greyer than the ones explored in The Gatekeepers, lately a nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar (it lost, and to a weaker film; but we had best not stay up nights for frustration at all the movies losing Oscars to weaker films). It is a film from Israel, broadly about that country's attempts to combat Palestinian terrorists, and it does not, as a huge number of Israeli-made movies do, come down hard on the government's treatment of its occupied lands. Nor does it hypercompensate by going full-on reactionary, and defending every last action taken against the Palestinians. If it has an overriding message - and though director Dror Moreh certainly pushes his subjects in a certain way, it's very much a descriptive film, rather than a proscriptive one - that message is, "Something has to be done about this situation, and most of what Israel is doing is probably wrong. But it is something."

Specifically, the film is about Shin Bet, the Israeli agency responsible for domestic security, and the gatekeepers of the titles are the six living men who at one point served as its director: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin. Cumulatively, these individuals represent some 30 years of history, from 1981 to 2011, with a two-year gap (Yossef Harmelin, who served between Shalom and Peri, is no longer alive; the movie doesn't mention this fact, which I dug up out of curiosity, and now it is my gift to you), and The Gatekeepers is built out of very little else than interviews with them. The first interviews that any of them have ever consented to give, no less, which gives the film extraordinary value as journalism totally irrespective of anything it does or doesn't do as a movie.

Generally, it is a chronological retelling of the last three decades of Israeli's history, filtered through the perspectives of these men who did so much to determine what that history would contain. Nothing so crude as memoir-like reminiscences; Dror is far more supple a filmmaker than that, and he cuts between the six men with momentum-building fluidity, that if nothing else serves as an in-the-moment demonstration of the ways that even if we agree upon certain facts, they are colored by the perspective of the speakers. There's not that much disagreement about the facts, anyway; more that some of the subjects (especially Shalom) are a bit cagier about some topics than their colleagues.

This is endlessly fascinating, and as one with no more than a basic working knowledge of Israel's history, The Gatekeepers threw so much dense information at me that at times it was borderline-impossible to keep up. But the film isn't just, or even primarily, an informational piece about what basic events happened and why; it is an opportunity for the ex-directors to ponder the meaning of their jobs, and the morality of what they did. Some of them are more aggressive than others; Ayalon especially seems openly contemptuous about the system he helped to support and the decisions he made about who should live and die. But not a single one of the six is either all confessional, or all prideful: each one of them is very aware that they performed actions that were indefensible and resulted in needless violence, and every one of them is also aware that if they'd done nothing at all, there's no telling how much worse things could have been.

Some of the criticisms of Israel are shocking - Shalom spends the whole movie seeming like a hardliner before he makes a rather casual comparison between his government and Nazi Germany ("Not identical. But similar", or words to that effect) - but for the most part, all six interviewees belief in the basic decency of their country, and merely hope to find less damaging ways of keeping it safe. A general sense of tragic nostalgia for the 1990s and the late Yitzhak Rabin, identified by more than one speaker as the only real hope for sustained, mutually beneficial peace that Israel has ever, pervades the film; none of them seem to expect any kind of course-correction soon, or ever. It is endlessly thought-provoking, and far more complex than the binary polemics that pass for conversation about the Middle East in the United States, and purely as a work of contemporary political history and moral philosophy, it's essential viewing.

But is it essential cinema? And here I must confess that as much as I admire The Gatekeepers, I really didn't like it at all. Well duh, it's about the Israeli counter-terrorism agency, it's not exactly a frothy musical comedy. There are, nonetheless, ways of making documentaries, even talking-head documentaries like this one, vibrant works of visual art, and Moreh does not much bother with any of them. Oh, he makes plenty of cinematic gestures: flashbacks to a certain major event in the '80s are done with little models that flash into photographs taken at the time, and there are cutaways to maps all the time, and and lots of archival material. He structures the movie into several chapters, with knowing titles like "No Strategy, Just Tactics" and "Our Own Flesh and Blood", to give it more of a punchy flow.

That structure, however, mostly goes to underline the thing that bothered me most about The Gatekeepers: it's not structured like a movie at all, but like a magazine article, with sidebars and graphics and everything. A really smart, well-argued magazine article, for sure - the kind you don't ever get in the mainstream newsmagazines any more. But for as much as the content is exciting, the film itself is an unimaginative drag, the kind that would always have seemed aesthetically conservative, but is positively damnable in this alleged golden age of documentaries we're living in now. It is polished and slick in a way that seems glib more than professional. To put it in a slightly less mean way: I am happy that I saw The Gatekeepers, and I was captivated by every word that was spoken, and I am pretty sure that I would have much preferred it if it came in book form.