If you’ve ever gone through security at Ben Gurion Airport, you know just how seriously Israel takes terrorism. It’s the sort of vigilance required by being a nation surrounded by enemies who historically wish to wipe you from the map. This constant sense of alert in the face of existential threats on all sides is woven into the fabric of the Jewish state’s identity. And it’s led to the events that give the nation its greatest sources of pride — namely its military victories in 1967’s Six Day War, 1973’s Yom Kippur War, and 1976’s high-wire raid at Entebbe.
That last one may be slightly less familiar to some. But it’s not for a lack of representation on screens both big and small over the years. There have been at least four movies that have retold the infamous hijacking of Air France Flight 139 from Athens to Paris and the daring military operation that followed. Just four short years after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a group of armed terrorists, including two German members of the anti-Zionist Revolutionary Cells group and two Arab members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took control of that plane whose passengers were largely Jewish (the flight’s first leg originated in Tel Aviv). The hijackers eventually redirected the flight to Entebbe, Uganda. There, they were greeted like long-lost comrades by the African dictator Idi Amin. It’s not giving anything away to say that the Israeli military’s subsequent lightning raid and rescue was a defining moment of triumph for the nation. After all, so much could have gone wrong. It’s amazing that so much went right.
That weeklong international crisis is now the subject of director Jose Padilha’s gripping but flawed new thriller 7 Days in Entebbe. While the previous retellings of this story, including 1976’s Raid on Entebbe and 1977’s Operation Thunderbolt, had the slightly chintzy veneer of an Irwin Allen disaster flick reimagined as a daytime soap opera, Padilha’s version has a grittier vibe of sweaty desperation, doom, and misplaced fanaticism. It may still be light years away from a masterpiece like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but it has an urgent tick-tock suspense that sweeps you up.
Padilha’s film opens with one of the German terrorists, Wilfried Bose (Inglorious Basterds’ Daniel Bruhl) psyching up his nerve in the men’s room of the Athens airport. His partner, Brigitte Kuhlmann (Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike) counters his jitters with the no-nonsense zealotry of a true believer. Shortly after the plane takes off, they pull out their weapons and storm the cockpit, forcing the pilots to make a pit stop to refuel in Benghazi, Libya, before making way for Entebbe. Once in Uganda, the terrified passengers are corralled into a squalid third-world terminal, where the Jewish passengers are separated from the others — a sickening reminder of the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Foxtrot’s Lior Ashkenazi) and Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsan) debate how to respond. The hijackers want their fellow “freedom fighters” released from Israel’s prisons, which is of course a non-starter for a country with a longstanding policy of never negotiating with terrorists. Still, the sheer number of lives in danger is hard to ignore. The push-pull debate between Rabin and Peres, two longtime frenemies and rivals for power, becomes political and loaded. Each wants to be the hero — or at least not the man behind a failure. Chain-smoking and in shirtsleeves, the two agree to stall for time while they plan an extraction operation sending IDF commandos to Uganda to save the hostages.
The film comes to crackling life during the planning and climactic execution of the raid. And Padilha, the Brazilian director behind 2007’s hi-octane Elite Squad, knows how to stage these white-knuckle sequences, especially when he cuts back and forth between the on-the-ground tactical assault and a modern dance performance featuring one of the commando’s girlfriends. (It’s way more artful and way less pretentious than it sounds.) What gets lost in all the fireworks, though, is a sense of scale — moral scale.
Screenwriter Gregory Burke (’71) lays out the justifications of both sides, humanizing both the victims and the perpetrators. This will probably seem admirably even-handed to some and problematically wishy-washy and cowardly to others. Either way, I wish the film had more of a point of view. It’s possible to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians without giving a false-equivalency here or painting the hijackers as stock Hollywood villains. There’s room for nuance, and it’s underexplored.
Still, 7 Days in Entebbe is an effective and undeniably thrilling film. The mission, of course, is a success. But this is not a hopeful movie. How can it be when its central problems are still with us more than 40 years later? In the end, this is just one chapter in what was, is, and will in all likelihood continue to be an endless and intractable cycle of violence.