Review: 7 Days in Entebbe

Thriller about a real hijacking and hostage crisis fails to ignite

7 Days in Entebbe (Operace Entebbe)
Directed by José Padilha
With Rosamund Pike, Daniel Brühl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi, Denis Ménochet

The 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight to Entebbe Airport in Uganda became one of those riveting events that kept people glued to news reports as if unfolded over the course of a week.

The new film 7 Days in Entebbe takes us back over what is now very well-trod ground. Three films were rushed out in 1976 and ’77 — starring Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson and Klaus Kinski, respectively — and several other films were inspired by it over the years. There was even a video game.

This version takes a surprisingly sympathetic look at the hijackers and casts a bit of a critical eye on the Israeli government. The opening titles point out that what one side calls a terrorist, the other side calls a freedom fighter.

Hijackers diverted an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Entebbe, Uganda, after a stopover in Athens. It had been destined for Paris. This was back in the days before airport security, and it was relatively easy for armed hijackers to board the plane.

The film focuses on the two German hijackers, Brigitte Kuhlmann (played by Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), who were part of a group called Revolutionary Cells. The group previously took part in bombings in Germany and a raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna. The violent past is glossed over in the film. They instead claim to be victims of a corrupt state and friends of a real German terrorist who died under still-unexplained circumstances in prison.

The film shows them as bookish idealists fighting against the oppression of capitalism and the right-wing government of West Germany. They spout a lot of Marxist rhetoric.

The two other hijackers come from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations (PFLP-EO) and are shown in a harsher light. These two also question whether the German terrorists are up to the task of killing the hostages when the time comes.

The growing division between the factions in the hijacking group is one of the few elements that work well.

Even though the plane was French, many of the passengers were Jewish or Israeli, as the flight began in Tel Aviv. The hostage-takers also were demanding, in addition to money, that dozens of Palestinian prisoners be released.

As the hijacking unfolds, its preparations or shown in flashback. At the same time, discussions go on in the Israeli government about what to do. Technically, it is a French plane stuck in Uganda. Some people think France should handle it. Others say Israel should step in as it has the best-trained response force.

Pushing for intervention is Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), who basically repeats variations on the idea that Israel has to attack and can’t negotiate over and over. Marsan has white combed-back salt-and-pepper wig and an affected accent that creates a wildly inappropriate comic persona.

Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) comes across as a weak and indecisive leader because he keeps pushing for less extreme options, or at least a plan with some chance of success.

Also turning up in the film is Idi Amim (Nonso Anozie), which turns out as another unintentionally comic performance, with a clueless Amin trying to play gracious host to his “guests” while the Israeli government tries to manipulate him via phone diplomacy.

The Israeli planning meetings and response preparations are never as exciting as they should be due to the cardboard depictions of the characters, which by default makes the better-developed German terrorists the more interesting characters.

One of the Air France crew stands out. Jacques Le Moine (Denis Ménochet). He attempts to be the moderate voice of reason, pointing out the two Germans that they are way in over their heads and should find a way to minimize the inevitable damage.

Denis Ménochet was in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds as a dairy farmer, and also recently played an abusive father in Custody (Jusqu'à la garde), which just won the best film in the New Europe competition at Febiofest.

The one hint of any cinematic style is that one of the Israeli soldiers has a girlfriend who is a dancer. A tightly choreographed dance piece is intercut with some of the film’s action at various points.

There should be a lot of excitement and suspense throughout the film, even if people remember how the events played out or have seen one of the other film versions. But the action just never ignites.

The title of the film was originally just Entebbe, and was changed in some markets just before the release to 7 Days in Entebbe. As the film progresses, a text on the screen points out the change of the days. When day seven finally appears, the audience is primed for something to finally happen, as so far the action has been fairly muted.

The end, though, is another disappointment following after a mediocre first two acts. After lots of planning and rehearsing, the end just seems like a repeat of earlier scenes.

Director José Padilha won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his 2007 Brazilian film Elite Squad, about a special police unit battling drug lords in the 1970s. He later made the moderately successful 2014 remake of Robocop.

Based on that experience, he should have had a better feel for mixing action and politics.The film is a bit successful as period piece evoking the looks and styles of the 1970s, especially when it comes to the German characters. But that is just a small part of the overall film. Mostly it evokes the feel of a 1970s TV movie, which is not great praise.

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