The summer of 1976, and the world holds its breath as a hostage crisis unfolds at Entebbe airport, Uganda. A hijacked Air France jet; half the passengers Israeli. Palestinian hijackers, aided by two German members of a far-left terrorist group. Demands to release prisoners held in Israel and other countries. A deadline by which the hostages, including children, will be shot. A walk-on part by unhinged Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. All climaxing in an audacious raid by the Israeli Defence Forces. If it seems like the perfect story for a movie, it is. Brazilian director José Padilha’s Entebbe is the fourth time the events of 1976 have made it to the screen – two Hollywood telemovies were rushed out just months after the crisis, quickly followed by an Israeli version.
Padilha’s retelling of the story – four decades later – attempts to cast the hijacking in a more considered historical context, reflecting on whether Middle East peace can come about without negotiation, and whether the actions of terrorists / freedom fighters can ever be justified. The film focuses alternately on the tensions in the Israeli government over how to deal with the crisis, and the conflict between the two German hijackers who start to question their commitment to a cause they have no real stake in.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin leans towards negotiation, while Defence Minister Shimon Peres favours a military solution. Meanwhile, in the derelict terminal at Entebbe airport, German “revolutionaries” Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann realise they may soon be confronted with the prospect of having to slaughter their hostages if their demands are not met. Can they go through with it?
It’s an intriguing attempt to tell this story from two different perspectives,and to understand what motivates idealists who believe revolution is the answer, and politicians who have to make hard, practical choices. For anyone not familiar with the events in Entebbe, the film is engaging enough as a historical account of a watershed moment in how the world chose to deal with terrorism – the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces prompted governments around the world to reassess the way they responded to acts of hostage taking.
But on a human level, Padilha’s film somehow manages to not quite capture the chaos, the messiness – the actual terror – of an event like Entebbe. With the hostages themselves largely relegated to the sidelines, there’s little sense of the urgency of their situation, the clock ticking, the adrenaline, the fear that any moment might be their last. And when the film’s big, set-piece climax – the Israeli assault on the hijackers – finally comes, it feels oddly downbeat. Despite being presented in slow motion, it seems as if it’s over almost before it’s begun and, once again, the hostages themselves feel disconnected from the main event.
If the action sometimes feels disjointed and plodding, the performances of the main cast do much to sustain the film. As Böse, Daniel Brühl conveys a nervy panic that gradually overcomes him as he begins to realise that the outside world will simply see him as another German killing Jews. “I’m not a Nazi,” he pleads. Rosamund Pike is brilliantly brittle as Brigitte Kuhlmann, resolutely reminding herself of her revolutionary credentials, determined not to let human weakness get in the way of the job at hand, but still on the verge of fracturing at any moment.
Eddie Marsan and Lior Ashkenazi deliver understated but compelling performances as Peres and Rabin. Their plan to rescue the hostages, as Rabin points out, relies on the element of surprise, something which is necessarily lacking in a film about an event where the outcome is so well-known. That’s excusable, of course, but it does make it all the more imperative for there to be a real emotional connection with the characters, to believe their terror and their joy.
And there is a brief sense of this at the very end of Entebbe. Ironically, it comes with a few moments of documentary footage of the real-life hostages returning home – the most human and touching point in the film. If only we had gotten to know them sooner.