In June 1976, an Air France Airbus was hijacked at Athens by pro-Palestinian terrorists and flown at gunpoint to Uganda’s primary airport, where the fate of 106 passengers – many of them Israelis – were used as an intended political bargaining chip.
Though I have no meaningful memory of the news story itself – I was busy climbing trees and playing with my Action Man – I vividly remember the subsequent films on TV.
The events were dramatised twice for American television: ABC’s Victory at Entebbe was rushed through in December 1976 to head off NBC’s Raid on Entebbe, which followed in January 1977. Both boasted all-star casts in step with Hollywood’s disaster movie boom (Victory had Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Lancaster; Raid lined up Peter Finch, Charles Bronson and Martin Balsam) and combined airline tension with all-action military intervention by Israeli Defence Force commandos. A government-approved Israeli feature, Operation Thunderbolt, aimed for documentary realism with Klaus Kinski, and was released theatrically.
You’d be forgiven for thinking: enough films about Entebbe. In 2006, The Last King of Scotland, though predominantly fictional, includes elements of the hijacking as its climax. It truly is the hostage crisis that goes on giving. But why now for a fourth full-scale re-enactment?
Chiefly, because Brazilian director/producer José Padilha can pick and choose after his two homegrown Elite Squad hits, a profitable reboot of RoboCop and the acclaimed Netflix docudrama Narcos. His 2002 debut feature was Bus 174, a documentary about a Rio hijacking, so Entebbe pushes all his buttons. His screenwriter, playwright Gregory Burke, wrote nerve-shredding, military-focused Irish Troubles thriller ’71, so no stranger to guns or the 1970s.
Perhaps the hair-trigger paranoia of current global terrorism makes us nostalgic for a more analogue past when terror acted as a diplomatic lever to ideological demands and not the basis of random carnage from a suicide bomb?
What the new Entebbe (7 Days in Entebbe in the US) doesn’t borrow from the 1970s is a roster of big names, preferring lower-rung, serious-minded casting: German-Spanish Daniel Brühl, and Brit Rosamund Pike as Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, the conflicted lead German hijackers; Londoner of Nigerian parentage Nonso Anozie as beaming Ugandan president Idi Amin; and Israeli leading man Lior Ashkenazi giving gravitas and fallibility to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Elsewhere, let’s be honest, there are a lot of international thesps trying out foreign accents: Eddie Marsan gives his creepiest shot at Knesset lifer Shimon Perez, a Pole; while two of the key Israeli soldiers on the ground are played by a Brit of Italian parentage, Vincent Riotta, and a New Yorker, Ben Schnetzer.
Padilha displays admirable restraint in letting the near-bloodless taking of Flight 139 and subsequent transfer of passengers to the departure hall of the down-at-heel Entebbe airport play out in a reasonably calm and ordered manner. But this sits somewhat at odds with other more stylistic early flourishes.
He stamps his own authority by using huge, bright-red captions that thump onto the screen. More imaginatively, he opens on an unexplained but visually arresting massed contemporary dance rehearsal by the Batsheva Dance Company – who throw themselves bodily on and off a semicircle of chairs to a traditional Jewish Passover song Echad Mi Yodea – which makes a promise that isn’t really delivered upon in the re-enactment to follow.
Once the plane lands at Entebbe, the meat and potatoes of the story are told in conference rooms and hangars that, beyond some planning of the eventual Day 7 raid, is unhindered by action (aside from the violent mistreatment by the hijackers of a suspected soldier among the hostages).
Brühl and a haunted looking Pike fret over what they have done in the name of the cause – Böse shows compassion by letting a passenger off the plane after she fakes a miscarriage, but segregates the Jewish hostages at Entebbe and frees the others – while politicians and military commanders watch the clock tick.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the raid is all over very quickly.
When it happens, we see as much intercut footage of the dance company as we do armed combat, protecting the film’s 12A certificate. And once the whiff of cordite recedes and the miraculously low amount of bodies is counted, we’re left with more captions bringing the intractable Israel-Palestine deadlock up to date.
Without the topical urgency of the first, pre-digital wave of Entebbe films, this one plays out almost like foreign policy as heritage cinema, fetishising walkie-talkies, onboard smoking policy and the almost farcical repainting of a decoy presidential car with what looks like house paint, not to mention the ease of smuggling automatic weapons onto an Airbus.
As a history lesson for a younger audience, it has some value, but it should by right have been the best Entebbe movie, not the second or third.