Film Review: 7 Days in Entebbe

José Padilha’s taut thriller about the 1976 hostage crisis is fatally compromised by cheap moral equivalence.
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Normally, the problem with a José Padilha movie is the elevation of action over consequences. For all their verisimilitude, his Elite Squad movies espouse the standard might-equals-right doctrine of a thousand tough-cop narratives. The less said about the flashy emptiness of his RoboCop remake, the better. But with the hijacking thriller 7 Days in Entebbe, his most problematic work to date, the movie’s political statement is front and center, leaving the narrative often stranded. It doesn’t help that the movie seems more concerned with the psychological well-being of its German kidnappers than the hundreds of civilians they held hostage.

The headline story feels tailor-made for Padilha’s brand of documentary-based world-crisis cinema. In 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv was hijacked. The quartet of kidnappers were two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a pair of German radical allies. Wilfried (Daniel Brühl, stolid and underwhelming as ever) is a publisher of “revolutionary texts” and terror neophyte. He is happy to shove a gun in the faces of the crew he forces to fly to Uganda but gets moral jitters once the reality sinks in. His partner Brigitte (Rosamund Pike, similarly unremarkable) is a more eager tool of the cause, furious over the recent prison suicide of Ulrike Meinhof, of Baader-Meinhof infamy.

Wilfried wrings his hands over the harsh behavior of the Palestinian captors towards their hundreds of hostages, whom they start separating into two groups: Israelis and everyone else. Meanwhile, the story’s more dramatically coherent narrative takes place back in Jerusalem. The politically cautious Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) tangles with Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) over what response to take. Rabin moots trading the hostages for jailed terrorists while Peres calmly puts together Operation Thunderbolt: a nail-biter of a raid in which a small unit of commandos—led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni (Angel Bonanni)—will fly thousands of miles into Africa and rescue the hostages from the kidnappers and the Ugandan army of Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie). While the outcome is known to the most casual student of 1970s history, it’s all still grippingly done, the interplay of egos and strategy tightly knotted and made even more riveting by Marsan’s sly and sphinx-like performance.

Things get rougher whenever playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay tilts from the Israelis’ conference rooms and barracks. Back in the stifling old airport terminal at Uganda’s Entebbe airport, Wilfried becomes anxious about the implications of separating out Israelis, insisting “I’m not a Nazi,” while not doing much of anything about it. His moral quaverings, while borne out in part by the record, just don’t play that well against a backdrop of innocent civilians being held at gunpoint. Compared to the depth of backstory given Wilfried and the more fanatical Brigitte, their Palestinian comrades barely rate, not to mention the mostly undifferentiated hostages. The only other character in the Entebbe scenes given much presence is an Air France crew member, played with a bluff heroicism by Denis Ménochet, who cuts a cant-reciting Wilfried down to size with “One engineer is worth fifty revolutionaries.”

If 7 Days at Entebbe had stopped there, we would have been left with a decently executed historical thriller that skirted with moral equivalency. The climax with Thunderbolt itself, a wing-and-a-prayer mission that Padilha cuts together with a thunderously scored avant-garde dance performance (Ohad Naharin’s epic and haunting “Echad Mi Yodea”), doesn’t capture the dramatic extent of the actual operation but gets the job done.

What ultimately sinks the movie is Burke’s noxious and stilted coda, which starts with Rabin declaring to Peres that “if we cannot negotiate, Shimon, the war will never end” and ends with finger-wagging onscreen titles about the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sentiment might be true, but the ugly timing, coming just after the men have saved their fellow Jews from being pulled out of a crowd and massacred like during the war, is a slap in the face.

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