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Recent documentaries about Phil Ochs, Vito Russo, Divine and Muhammad Ali have proved so skillful and entertaining that they challenge the marketplace dominance of fiction films.

Alas, that’s not the case with “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” a new documentary about Israel’s early history that’s sometimes so clunky, it suggests a return to the bad old days when nonfiction films could be mistaken for schoolroom torture devices.

The archival film clips are often fuzzy, scratchy and poorly chosen, and the narration by Hollywood stars is plagued by miscasting. Leonard Nimoy just sounds like an aging Spock as the voice of Levi Eshkol, Sandra Bullock lacks warmth and toughness as Golda Meir, and Michael Douglas is hammy as Yitzhak Rabin. Only Christoph Waltz hits the right unobtrusive note as Menachem Begin.

Fortunately, the interviews with witnesses to history reveal almost enough solid stories to justify the two-hour running time. Anecdotes about Israeli relations with Presidents Truman, Johnson and Nixon, presented almost as fly-on-the-wall tales, stand out.

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The best of these come from Yehuda Avner, an adviser to the four prime ministers whose memoir served as the basis for Richard Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier’s script. An extended interview with Avner helps to ground the film and lend it its chief link with authenticity.

What it doesn’t provide is the dramatic background for Israel’s 1948 birth, handled so much more effectively in Otto Preminger’s fictionalized 1960 epic, “Exodus.” It might be helpful to watch “Exodus” first, although a double bill would undoubtedly emphasize the nationalistic nature of both films.

Trank has finished a two-hour sequel, “The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,” which is to play the Jewish Film Festival in March 2014.

John Hartl:

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