The July 4, 1976 Israeli raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport, which succeeded in freeing more than a hundred hostages taken when an Air France plane was hijacked by two German terrorists and some Palestinian comrades, has been the subject of several docu-dramas, all of them “on top of the news” efforts from 1976-77. Now after a lapse of forty years comes a fourth, which has some strong points but makes a few strange choices that hobble its effectiveness.
Jose Padilha’s “7 Days at Entebbe” is divided almost equally between the hostage situation itself, and the deliberations of the Israeli government about how to respond to it. In the former, radical Germans Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) take over the plane, order it to fly first to Libya and then to Uganda, and finally herd the passengers and crew into an old, unused terminal. There Palestinian activists effectively take over the operation and shunt the Germans into the background, while Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin (Nonzo Anozie) tries to grab the world’s attention by acting as host and honest mediator.
Meanwhile, in Israel a debate occurs as to whether to enter negotiations with the hijackers, who are demanding the release of terrorists in Israeli jails; doing so would reverse long-standing policy. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) is inclined to use the situation to initiate a more moderate stance that he believes is inevitable by entering negotiations, while Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) argues in favor of remaining dead-set against any relaxation in approach. He encourages the IDF leadership to develop the military rescue plan that will eventually be put into effect as Operation Thunderbolt, led by Yoni Netanyahu (Angel Bonanni), brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both halves of the story have points of interest but serious handicaps as well. The Israel-set sequences make the most of the rivalry between Rabin and Peres, nicely portrayed by Ashkenazi and especially Marsan, who with his sleek hairdo and stealthy manner brings a truly creepy note to the Defense Minister (who in his later years became a major proponent of Rabin’s negotiation strategy).
But this portion of the film is undermined by a misguided subplot about a soldier (Ben Schnetzer) who’s part of the rescue team and his girlfriend (Zina Zinchenko), who’s irked that he’ll miss her performance in a group dance presentation. As if that weren’t bad enough, the picture uses that dance to punctuate the drama, periodically returning to the ensemble stomping—the piece is Ohad Naharin’s routine set to the Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea”—as a running commentary to the action in the government planning rooms and on the ground in Entebbe. There’s probably some deep meaning to this, but it isn’t immediately apparent, and the stop-and-start result impedes the narrative flow.
On the other hand, the hostage scenes build some genuine tension and an occasional sense of real danger (as in the depiction of the beating of a passenger suspected of being a spy), and there is a nicely understated performance by Denis Menochet as Jacques Lemoine, a member of the French cockpit crew who works to make the hostages’ plight as comfortable as possible.
Here too, though, there’s a fundamental problem in the portrayal of Böse and Kuhlmann. Simply put, the attempt to humanize them is heavy-handed. Screenwriter Gregory Burke seizes on their final act—telling the hostages to take cover during the raid rather than shooting them—to opine that they were, in effect, wishy-washy radicals, willing to undertake the hijacking but reluctant actually to kill, and more and more pushed to the sidelines by their Palestinian masters. That’s barely convincing in the case of Böse, whom Brühl, though a fine actor, can invest with little more than a sort of generalized dyspepsia, though he manages some good exchanges with Menochet. It makes things terribly difficult, however, for Pike, who must endure not only a bad scene in which she cuts her hair in some sort of symbolic gesture, but an even worse one—a monologue in which she telephones her German lover back home, which must be as much pure invention as the underground sequence in “Darkest Hour.” This is not Pike’s finest one.
One must also note that the actual raid sequence, which is messily choreographed, shot (by Lulu Carvalho) and edited (by Daniel Rezende), comes across as curiously anticlimactic, both attenuated in scope and oddly ponderous. Otherwise the film is technically adequate, but hardly outstanding.
Operation Thunderbolt was undoubtedly a great triumph for Israel, though arguably it endowed the IDF with an aura of invincibility that has clouded, perhaps distorted, policy ever since, leading to a degree of bellicosity that has impeded the search for reasonable compromises. By presenting it in a simplistic, bathetic fashion, “7 Days in Entebbe” fails to confront its complexity, in terms of both its execution and its aftermath.