Jose Padilha, Brazilian helmer of taut political-military thrillers like the Elite Squad series—and that useless 2014 Robocop remake—is an appropriate choice to direct the refreshingly empathetic, even-keeled 7 Days in Entebbe, mainly because he can explore an especially incendiary moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without kowtowing to any specific ideology. The real-life 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane full of Israeli citizens by a group of Palestinian terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your outlook) and their comrades, as well as the seven days of negotiations and military rescue preparations that followed, has been adapted to film multiple times before. Irvin Kershner’s TV movie, Raid on Entebbe, immediately following the actual event, so it understandably skewed towards praising and exaggerating the heroics of the Israeli soldiers in charge of the rescue attempt. A 1977 theatrical release, Operation Thunderbolt, tripled down on Kershner jingoism.
With 7 Days in Entebbe, Padilha and screenwriter Gregory Burke attempt to give equal time to both the hijackers and those tasked with defeating them. Daniel Bruhl and Rosamund Pike play German, far-left revolutionaries Wilfried and Brigitte, who help their Palestinian comrades in the hijacking, which brings the plane to a Uganda under the wonky leadership of batshit crazy Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie, who does his best, but of course is no Forest Whitaker). An ideologue who would rather talk your ears out about the evils of fascist imperialism than grab a gun and get blood on his hands for the cause, Wilfried becomes increasingly conflicted about the kind of violence he might be asked to perform, fully aware of how the image of Germans killing Jews will look to the world. Meanwhile, Brigitte has second thoughts, mainly for oddly humanitarian reasons, perhaps willfully unaware of the fact that what she’s participating in is a blatant act of war. The film seems always in tune with the conflicting ideals of its characters, reveling in the irony of Wilfried pointing a gun at a pregnant woman and yelling, “We are humanitarians!”
Granted, the film relegates the Palestinian hijackers to the background while telling the white Europeans’ story, but that appears to be part of Padilha’s point, and least as far as offering one sincere sequence after another in which Palestinian characters, whose families were decimated by Israeli forces, question the Germans’ resolve. What stakes do those who don’t have a personal connection to such pain face?
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) struggles between the hostages’ families, who want him to negotiate with the hijackers, and minister of defense Shimon Peres’ (Eddie Marsan, in a chilling performance as the dead-eyed realist) insistence that a military rescue operation is the only option. Rabin pines for a time when some form of negotiation needs to take place for the sake of peace, and those familiar with his biography know where that went, but he still decides to give Peres’ plan a chance. A tense sequence of decisions builds, of course, to the climactic rescue operation.
Boldly, Padilha intercuts footage of an interpretive dance performance with the film’s third act action, stamping a giant symbolic exclamation point on the surface heroics while infusing a run-off-the-mill action sequence with some refreshingly original touches. The only glaring downside of this choice lies in Padilha and Burke’s sloppy attempt to narratively tie the dance scenes to the plot via a woefully underdeveloped side story about a dancer worried for her soldier boyfriend (Ben Schnetzer) going on the rescue mission.
In fact, 7 Days in Entebbe’s one hour and 45-minute runtime tries a bit too hard to cram in too much, revealing and inherent desire for something more epic in its historical origins. This material might have even worked better as a miniseries, when what we get in the feature is an acceptable cliff’s notes version. With a deft docudrama approach (that doesn’t overdo the usual extra-shaky handheld camera and overtly grainy visual tone), Padilha shows a commendable technical control over that rare movie that could have benefitted from being much longer.
Director: Jose Padilha
Written by: Gregory Burke
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Bruhl, Eddie Marsan, Ben Schnetzer, Lior Ashkenazi, Nonso Anozie, Peter Sullivan, Denis Menochet
Release Date: March 16, 2018