A great deal of cinematic attention has been paid to the hijacking/hostage-taking/hostage-rescue mission that took place at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. In an almost unprecedented reaction, two all-star feature films—Raid on Entebbe and Victor at Entebbe—about the incident were released later that same year; a year later, the Israeli production, Operation Thunderbolt (from the filmmaking team of Menahem Golan and Ken Globus), was released; and there have been a fair number of documentaries on the events as well over the years. To be fair, it’s been 40 years since the last retelling of the story of Palestinian terrorists, working with German nationals (members of the Baader-Meinhof Group), taking over an Air France plane from Tel Aviv to Paris. 7 Days in Entebbe dramatizes that event as well as the Israeli response—a death-defying rescue mission in Uganda, which was controlled by dictator Idi Amin, who was working with the terrorists, while trying to appear to Israel as if he was helping free the hostages.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the reason this story is still so interesting has little to do with its outcome. But it does capture the attitude toward Israel at the time throughout the world, and underscores just how little things have changed to this day. The flight was coming from Israel with about 100 Israelis among the nearly 250 passengers. The terrorists separated the Israelis and let the rest of the hostages go before the rescue attempt. Refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, the great Israeli actor seen in Norman, Big Bad Wolves, and next week’s Foxtrot) and defense minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) weigh their options, fight among themselves, and eventually greenlight a rescue attempt, the likes of which had never been attempted before. Writer Gregory Burke (’71) and Brazilian-born director José Padilha (both Elite Squad films, the recent RoboCop remake, and the great Bus 174 documentary, also about a terrorist attack) have packed a great deal of information and a small army of characters into the film and made it easy to understand, both in terms of the politics involved and actually carrying out the operation.
Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl play Brigitte and Wilfried, members of Baader-Meinhof, who begin the hijacking with high ideals and a clear sense of what they want to accomplish, and are subsequently blindsided by the Palestinians, who make it clear that they want to punish Israel unless it releases a large number of terrorists being held in Israeli prisons. The few times Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) actually shows up, he’s portrayed as something of a clown as he welcomes the kidnapping victims to his “beautiful country,” even though they never get outside of the terminal and airfield.
7 Days In Entebbe cuts back and forth from the active hijacking/kidnapping to six months earlier, when the planning for the event began in earnest. Much of the film is told through the eyes of the Baader-Meinhof team, and as much as they can, the filmmakers do attempt to maintain a degree of balance to the storytelling, allowing both sides of the conflict to voice their displeasure and outrage over the other side’s appalling behavior over the years since the state of Israeli was created. The German involvement in this incident seems motivated by a broader sense of trying to right a great injustice in the world, but when the terrorists begin separating Jews from the group, the Germans are keenly aware of how this will look in the eyes of the world.
Adding a curious extra component to the movie, director Padilha also intercuts rehearsal and performance excerpts from the Batsheva Dance Company’s production of the modern dance piece “Minus 16,” which dramatizes the entire hijacking and rescue event, during the finale of the film when we’re seeing the mission carried out. As moving as the dance number is, including it as part of the climax breaks up the flow and tension of the sequence being carried out at the airport and takes a great deal of the tension out of what should have been an unbearably white-knuckle moment.
The acting on display here is top notch, particularly from Pike, Ashkenazi and Marsan, all of whom play characters who are passionate about their beliefs and causes but are also willing to look at the reality of the situation in hopes of a desirable outcome. The filmmakers seem committed to sticking to the facts, without exaggerating the drama in any way, which works incredibly well with this particular story. It would probably elevate your sense of excitement if you don’t know the outcome of the rescue mission, but even knowing what happens (as I did) doesn’t take much away from the anxiety that will likely be generated. A noble effort with mostly strong results.