(This film review of “7 Days in Entebbe”, also called “Entebbe”, appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 30, 2018.)
Directed by José Padilha; written by Gregory Burke; starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi and Denis Ménochet
The new film “Entebbe” (also entitled “7 Days in Entebbe”) – about the famed Israeli rescue of 248 hostages from a hijacked Air France airplane in Uganda in 1976 – released in Australia this week on DVD, Blu-Ray and selected streaming services. Four hijackers – two German and two Palestinian – took control of the plane after leaving Athens and demanded it refuel in Libya and fly to Uganda. There, with the support of Ugandan President Idi Amin, they attempted to negotiate the passengers for release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Over the course of a week the Israelis organised a dramatic rescue, projecting their military power by sending 100 commandos an unprecedented 4,000 kilometres, deep into Africa. All but four passengers and one Israeli solder – Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of current Prime Minister Bibi – survived the experience. For many, it was the most daring special forces rescue in history, a high point in Israeli international authority.
Don’t let the absence of a cinema release fool you: this is a high-production “ticking clock” action thriller directed by Brazilian José Padilha (“Robocop”), with a stellar international cast. One of the pleasures of this new version of the story is the portrayal of historic figures by contemporary actors, notably Israelis Lior Ashkenazi as (then Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin, Mark Ivanir as IDF Chief-of-Staff Motta Gur, Yifach Klein as Ehud Barak; British character actor Eddie Marsan as Shimon Peres; French actor Denis Ménochet (who played a farmer that hid Jews in “Inglourious Bastards”) as the plane’s heroic flight engineer; and British Nigerian actor Nonso Anozie as Idi Amin. German actor Daniel Bruhl and British actress Rosamund Pike headline the cast, playing the German hijackers; the Palestinian hijackers remain less distinct personalities in Padilha’s telling.
It’s a “Euro-pudding” cast, with the film shot in Malta. Characters mostly speak English, with the occasional foray into German, Arabic, French or Hebrew. The result is a bit disconcerting as it’s not always clear what national background the characters are from.
If you are looking for language verisimilitude, this is not the film. Instead return to the Menachem Golan’s 1977 Israeli-made, Oscar-nominated “Operation Thunderbolt”, in which Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yigal Allon all played themselves.
What director Padilha does bring is a carefully plotted “actioner”, complete with internal arguments among Israeli politicians, how the IDF prepared for the assault on a mock-up of Entebbe Airport, and the rescue itself. There’s not quite enough tension (surely we all know how the story ends), but Padilha adds a new twist by exploring the German hijackers’ backgrounds and personalities, a theme he first utilised in his controversial Brazilian documentary “Bus 174”.
Oddly, the film opens with a rehearsal of the Israeli Batsheva Dance company practicing a rousing Hebrew version of Passover song “Achad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”), also known as “the chair dance”, choreographed by company’s famed director Ohad Naharin. This intercutting of the dance sequence – it appears throughout the film, and returns as a full performance during the final scene during the airport raid at the film’s climax – is affecting and powerful, although its inclusion in the film is difficult to understand. One of the Batsheva performers is the girlfriend of one of the film’s characters, but what does the dance signify?
Director Jose Padilha explains that that he loves Israeli culture and admires the Israeli capability for self-criticism. The dance “is an amazing metaphor. The only way there’s going to be a solution [to the Palestinian conflict], the only way we are going to break this cycle of fear, is if somehow people strip themselves of their orthodox way of thinking.” Maybe, but I’m still scratching my head.
No matter. The story is too good to leave alone and seeing Batsheva on screen is thrilling. The final frames predictably – but satisfyingly – summarise the outcomes of the events. Many viewers are likely to feel a renewed awe in the capability of Israeli military derring-do, a reminder of the intractability of the conflict and how Israelis were – indeed still are – capable of extraordinary feats of imagination and risk-taking.