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Review: ‘The Green Prince’ is a real-world spy thriller

The documentary's director, Nadav Schirman, uses extensive interviews as well as some re-creations.
(Hans Fromm / Music Box Films)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas founder/leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef, spied on Hamas for Israel for 10 years

As readers of spy fiction know, every secret agent has a handler, the person to whom the undercover operative reports. We’ve read about it in novels by Graham Greene and John le Carré, but how might it work in real life? If the intense and fascinating “The Green Prince” is any indication, it takes unforeseen turns even the best of novelists would have trouble imagining.

Compelling enough to win Sundance’s world documentary audience award, the film goes into the psychological and power dynamics of one specific spy/handler relationship. Though it’s set in the context of a highly combustible international situation, its emphasis is always on the personal, on these two men and what they came to mean to each other.

Nadav Schirman, “The Green Prince’s” director, has experience getting difficult people to talk on camera: his last film, “In the Dark Room,” centered on the wife and daughter of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

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Here the protagonists are Gonen Ben Yitzhak, an agent for the Shin Bet, Israel’s super-secret version of the FBI, and Mosab Hassan Yousef, who spied on Hamas for Israel for 10 years.

But as his “Green Prince” code name indicates, Hassan Yousef was not just any informant. He was the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of Hamas’ founders and current leaders, and having him spying for Israel was beyond shocking. As the secret agent himself dramatically says, “To collaborate with Israel was the most shameful thing you could do, worse than raping your mother.”

Both Hassan Yousef and Ben Yitzhak sit down for the extensive interviews which are most of what we see on screen. There are re-creations plus some genuine footage to look at, as well as what looks like simulated drone shots, but these two men looking at the camera and talking are the heart of the matter. This is not great filmmaking, but their story is so involving that it doesn’t matter as much as it might.

Ben Yitzhak, it turns out, joined Shin Bet even though his father warned him it was “a dark organization.” As for Hassan Yousef, he talks about how the constant arrests and harassment of his father, a leader on the West Bank, made him determined to kill Israelis. “But Allah,” he adds enigmatically, “had other plans for me.”

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Unaware that as the son of a Hamas leader living in the West Bank, he is under constant Shin Bet surveillance, Hassan Yousef is arrested after an arms purchase and the attempt to turn him begins.

“Recruitment,” Ben Yitzhak explains, “is a very difficult art. You have to understand who the person is, find their needs. By finding his weak points and using them, you can make him do things he would never do.”

Only 17 when he was arrested, Hassan Yousef, as it turned out, was an especially complicated figure with numerous vulnerabilities. As a child, he had been molested by a family friend, a shame he had never revealed, and, though barely into his teens, as the eldest son he had been left in charge of the family during his father’s years in Israeli detention.

As to the reasons Hassan Yousef agreed to become a spy, they feel a bit muddled. He initially says he agreed just to get out of prison, with no thought to actually keeping his promise, but that the atrocities he saw Hamas commit against its own people while he was behind bars horrified him enough to follow through.

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“The Green Prince” details the wild twists Hassan Yousef’s espionage career took, as well as the parallel complications of his dealings with Ben Yitzhak, the ways in which what started out being one kind of relationship ended up in a place neither man could possibly have anticipated.

Despite the preponderance of talk in “The Green Prince,” not a huge amount of time is spent on analysis, on trying to figure out why what happens happens. We are welcome to speculate on the reasons things took the unbelievable turns they did, but we will never know for sure. Which, given how strange this whole story is, seems exactly right.

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The Green Prince’

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MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material and some disturbing images.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

Playing Landmark, West Los Angeles.


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