The 1976 hijacking of Air France Flight 139 by Palestinian rebels was a significant event in the decades-long struggle between Israel and Palestine. Israel’s military response - resulting in the deaths of 56 people (3 hostages, 1 Israeli soldier, 7 hijackers, and 45 Ugandan soldiers) - is regarded as one of the more audacious rescue missions in modern history. It’s been the subject of numerous documentaries and three narrative features, while inspiring or being referenced in more still. Few events represent such a confluence of global issues - the Israel-Palestine conflict, the reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, West German revolutionaries - or such a political minefield in dramatisation.
7 Days In Entebbe attempts to avoid the accusations of propaganda that dogged previous adaptations (titled, tellingly, Raid on Entebbe and Victory at Entebbe) by following multiple narrative strands with more or less equal weighting. The principal storyline concerns the hijackers, specifically German revolutionaries Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), as their hostage situation becomes more and more untenable. Mirroring that is a week-long debate between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (Foxtrot’s Lior Ashkenazi) and defense minister Shimon Peres (a chameleonic Eddie Marsan) over how best to deal with the situation, and the journey of a young Israeli soldier (Ben Schnetzer) involved in the raid.
Clearly, director José Padilha (Elite Squad, Narcos, the unfortunate Robocop remake) has a lot to juggle here. In terms of filmmaking, he mostly pulls it off - but it comes at the expense, somewhat, of nuance.
Introducing your main characters by having them hijack a plane is a bold move, and Entebbe never quite successfully reframes Pike and Brühl’s characters after that. Padilha's painfully obvious goal (and screenwriter Gregory Burke's) is to contrast these two high-minded idealists against the more willingly-violent Palestinians with whom they’re teamed. Their various motivations are spelled out in lengthy ideological debates no actual human beings would carry out in a real-life hijacking situation. The various angles from which the hijackers approach their mission are interesting, no doubt - especially that of the German characters, acting against Israel while guilt over World War II, still relatively fresh, weighs on their minds - but they’re communicated all too bluntly.
That moral debate is echoed in the Israeli government section of the movie, in which Ashkenazi’s Rabin and Marsan’s Peres debate whether the best response is negotiation or a military operation. It’s intriguing political procedural stuff, but again, filtered through dialogue that reduces the characters to little more than their political standpoints. There’s definitely more depth to be plumbed in this story, but in portraying all angles at once, Entebbe ends up a touch shallow. Its barely-drawn soldier character is symptomatic of this also, as is its cartoonish (though admittedly entertaining) depiction of Idi Amin.
Part of what makes Entebbe a frustrating watch is its steadfast refusal to pass moral judgement on almost anyone in its cast. It’s clear from the opening titles - dealing out a trite “terrorists or freedom fighters” simplification of Palestinian tactics - that this is going to be a determinedly apolitical movie, and that approach is followed slavishly through the entire runtime. The villains of the film are the warmongers on both sides, the protagonists the negotiators. As it is, the ultimate message - that there can be no peace without negotiation - is admirable, but somewhat wishy-washy given the politically-charged nature of the subject material. I’d rather see a film take a stance - even if it’s not the one I personally subscribe to - than avoid taking one altogether.
If only Entebbe’s screenplay had as much life as its filmmaking did. One subplot follows the principal soldier character’s girlfriend preparing for a dance recital. Not only are that storyline’s dance rehearsals and performance a surprising addition to the film; they grant the third act's military raid a great deal of its energy, cross-cutting to match the music and using choreography to drive emotion and movement. It's not enough to render the climax into anything but a confusing downer, however.
7 Days In Entebbe doesn’t have a hell of a lot unique or original to say. The story of the Entebbe hijacking and raid has been told many times before, and its themes are made up of idealistic, “can’t we just get along?” moralising. That might appeal to some (hell, in theory it appeals to me), but it’s going to frustrate others. It’s a shame, too, because the movie is otherwise filled with good work from nearly every department and cast member.
The film's text postscript, giving a rough outline of the following decades of Israel-Palestine relations, concludes with an ominous statement as to the lack of current negotiations. All the attempts at revolution and violence have only maintained a standstill, the film tells us - if only the film itself didn't feel like a standstill too.