Director: José Padilha
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi, Denis Ménochet
Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, for which Forest Whitaker won the lead actor Oscar for playing murderous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, culminated in a tense finale that pivoted on a real-life hijacking crisis. We see the fictitious protagonist, Amin’s disillusioned Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), evade certain death by escaping – undercover, battered – in an airplane carrying a group of non-Israeli passengers released by the Palestinian terrorists. Though this historically accurate Entebbe airport incident was employed as a device to service the larger narrative of Idi Amin, there has been no shortage of full-length cinema dramatizing and documenting “Operation Thunderbolt,” Israel’s 1976 counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission.
For those like myself, who aren’t familiar with any of the versions – the two American TV movies made within a year of the mission, Menahem Golan’s Oscar-nominated Israeli film of the same name, as well as a bunch of modern-day documentaries – Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha’s (Elite Squad, RoboCop) 7 Days In Entebbe unravels as a broadly engaging, if occasionally counterintuitive, suspense drama. There is an attempt by the screenwriter, Gregory Burke (who wrote the fantastic Scottish riot thriller, ’71), to cover every single dimension – that is, alternate between the political-thriller atmosphere of the Israeli Government headquarters, the action-thriller environment of the muggy African airport, the survival-thriller coarseness of the IDF Commandos’ weeklong raid rehearsal and the moral-thriller existentialism of the two German hijackers (Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl) examining their own motivations of leading the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine’s deadly mission.
Brühl, in particular, plays a German extremist desperate to communicate the difference between Nazi philosophies and his “freedom fighting” ways to the traumatized Israeli Jews. In a film-geek way, it’s sort of intriguing to see him revolt against his Inglourious Basterds identity, especially in the company of French actor Denis Ménochet – now internationally famous for his role as the French dairy farmer interrogated by Colonel Hans Landa in the opening scene.
As a result, Entebbe repeatedly poses various dangers from all mental perspectives – as only a 2018-made film, equipped with the endless power of hindsight and objectivity, is inclined to do. Which also means that Entebbe, without its own distinct outlook, misses an opportunity to supplement its vision with a voice. The overenthusiastic film pinpoints the hostage crisis as a crucial moment in time, and wishfully reimagines each of the protagonists – from a cautious Prime Minister to a no-nonsense Defense Minister to an empathetic flight engineer to the greedy Idi Amin – with the power to permanently change not only the dynamics of the age-old Israel-Palestine conflict but also of the world’s overall concept of peace and negotiation. It’s almost as they were created to address the future from the confines of a 1976 vehicle, fully aware of the historical reciprocations each move might result in.
Entebbe repeatedly poses various dangers from all mental perspectives – as only a 2018-made film, equipped with the endless power of hindsight and objectivity, is inclined to do. Which also means that Entebbe, without its own distinct outlook, misses an opportunity to supplement its vision with a voice.
For most part, this classic storytelling template of “humanizing” each corner of the raid becomes the film itself – the cinematic equivalent of an indefinite stopover between two quick flights. It begins with the hijacking, and ends with the theatricality of the IDF’s audacious after-dark rescue; in between, however, the sepia-tinged Argo-meets-Munich design is hardly a distraction from the story’s diplomatic behind-the-scenes inaction. The mission’s leader, the older brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister, is so fleeting that his fate barely makes a sentimental case for today’s tough anti-negotiation stance. The Ministers – who would go down in history as one of Israel’s rare peace-propagating officials – spend so long describing their own viewpoints to one another that it’s hard to integrate their over-informative worries into the Ugandan airport’s week-long siege.
It’s difficult to be “original” about a piece of history that has been retold several times the world over, but Padilha, who has also directed the pilot of the addictive Netflix series, Narcos, doesn’t shy away from the challenge. In doing so, though, Padilha overcompensates – almost pretentiously – on a basic stylistic level. For example, he tries to lend a degree of hipster heft to proceedings, by intercutting the mission with a wonderful Batsheva Dance Company performance of “Minus 16” involving the girlfriend of a young Israeli soldier. I’m not sure about the art-versus-war allegory here, but instead of amplifying the intensity of the actual raid, these visuals invade the grounded sensitivity of the story. Only directors unsure about their stance are prone to cementing over their films’ gaping crevices with aesthetically pleasing images.
There is an overall air of a tragedy, despite the mission’s unprecedented success – mostly in context of the uncompromising “message” it advertises for the future of mercurial Middle-Eastern tensions. One can almost read the makers’ subtext: “terrorists continue to be born, because leaders refuse to negotiate peace treaties”.
There is an overall air of a tragedy, despite the mission’s unprecedented success – mostly in context of the uncompromising “message” it advertises for the future of mercurial Middle-Eastern tensions. One can almost read the makers’ subtext: “terrorists continue to be born, because leaders refuse to negotiate peace treaties”. Blaming everybody and nobody is hardly a film-worthy expedition. Ironically, much of the story is centered upon efforts to create a vaguely platonic connection between the hostages and the hijackers, but nothing – not so much as a last-gasp orchestration or regretful resolution – is handed to the four hostages that died. Mentioning them as a statistic in a slate is simply not in sync with the film’s tone. Perhaps the aggressive tunes of “Minus 16,” conceptualized by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, might not have suited their doomed fates.