Reviewed by Lee Hill
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Operation Entebbe, the 4 July 1976 raid by Israeli commandos into Uganda to rescue 106 passengers of a hijacked Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, reveals a depressing number of near forgotten films, made-for-TV movies, documentaries and other fictions inspired-by. The historical record somehow remains unsullied by these attempts at a greater truth (read: mega-box office success and maybe an Emmy or Oscar). Viewers of a certain age – old enough to remember the news reports of the time as well as Hollywood’s unseemly haste to release Victory at Entebbe with Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Dreyfuss before the year was out – are forgiven for rolling their eyes at another docudrama about these events.
While Entebbe does not reach the heights of Battle of Algiers or Paul Greengrass’ more recent United 93, Brazilian director José Padilha transcends many of the clichés associated with docudramas. The film opens with an audacious framing device – the rehearsal of a modern dance piece by a Tel Aviv based company – making the point that the reason the raid was almost a complete success (only 3 passengers were killed along with, ironically, the leader of the raid, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of future Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu) was due to the decisiveness, intelligence and bravery of all involved.
Padhila, who came to fame with true life thrillers like Bus 174 and Elite Squad, eschews big set pieces by centring the action in two tension filled locations: Entebbe airport and an emergency cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv. Cross-cutting back and forth between the hostages and their German-Arab captors huddled in a derelict terminal and the Israeli cabinet, military and Mossad in drab and smoky meeting rooms, Entebbe shows how moments of sudden violence can go hand in hand with hours of debate. With an official position of not negotiating with terrorists, the government needs to find a way to rescue the hostages without losing lives, adding to Middle East tensions or more cynically, jeopardizing their own careers if they rush to a decision or fail to come to one at all. As for the terrorists, the displaced Palestinians view the flash politics of their German colleagues with a mix of contempt and bafflement. While the PLO fights for a nation-state, the Germans worry they will be viewed as Nazis if any of the Israelis come to harm during the crisis.
Through subtle casting, Entebbe also avoids the prospect of star power getting in the way of staging real events. On the Israeli side, Eddie Marsan makes a convincing Shimon Peres, quietly exasperating his rival, Yitzhak Rabin, played by Lior Ashkenazi, as they argue for the right response. As the flight engineer, Denis Ménochet, represents the fears and concerns of the passengers caught up in geopolitical machinations they never thought they would have to face. Rosamund Pike, in a long overdue shift from her English rose image, as Brigitte Kuhlmann, the dogmatic ideologue who has brokered the hijacking with the PLO. Pike does such a good job at making a certain brand of zealotry both sexy and scary that her scenes almost feel like a different type of movie.
In the end, this is Padilha’s film. As he has demonstrated in his previous films and his work on the TV series, Narcos, Padilha, working here with scenarist Gregory Burke, has a knack for dramatising recent history without resorting to caricature. By sticking as closely to the seven days of high stakes negotiation involving not just a superpower and an uneasy terrorist alliance, but Uganda’s then dictator Idi Amin, the director makes us see the past afresh. At a time, when terrorism has become even more omnipresent, Entebbe not only entertains and informs, but gives us a new perspective on the conflicts of the present as well as those of the past.
Screenplay: Gregory Burke
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Lior Ashkenazi and Denis Ménochet