- Title 7 Days in Entebbe
- Directed by Jose Padilha
- Written by Gregory Burke
- Starring Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl
On June 27, 1976, on Air France Flight 139 en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, four hijackers from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – including two German revolutionaries – took guns out of their hand luggage and took over the aircraft, eventually touching down in Entebbe, Uganda. They herded 248 passengers and crew into a decrepit airport terminal and demanded that Israel release 53 Palestinian prisoners or they would begin killing hostages. But Israel didn’t negotiate with terrorists, so the world watched as the countdown began.
You might not imagine that this true story would be used as a plea for diplomacy and peaceful negotiation, but by the end of the film, writer Gregory Burke, director Jose Padilha (RoboCop), and Participant Media, a company that always wears its moral heart on its sleeve, will make sure you do. In case you somehow don’t hear Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) say on day three, “Our enemies are our neighbours, and if we don’t negotiate, we will live as prisoners and our country will be a prison,” he will say it again on day seven: “If we can’t negotiate, this war will never end.” And in case you miss that, a crawl at the end of the film will remind you that, as of March 2018, no negotiations are occurring.
I’m all for diplomacy and peace, of course. But this particular story is a peculiar vehicle for getting that message across. There are a lot of strands, and Padilha tries to give them all their due. The German fringe group, represented by Brigitte (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried (Daniel Bruhl), supports the Palestinians not because they are anti-Israeli, but because they believed Israel was itself becoming fascistic, doing to Palestine what Germany had done to them. Peace-hungry Rabin is sparring with his minister of defence, Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), who advocates for swift, decisive military action, damn the casualties. Ugandan autocrat Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) supports the hijackers because he wants to look tough to the Russians. There’s also an Israeli special forces soldier and his girlfriend, a dancer; she’s rehearsing a performance (the Batsheva Dance Company’s Minus 16) that bookends the film.
Padilha is trying something noble here: to give every side its due. Unfortunately, he gives us a lesson in moral complexity instead of a movie. The soldier is The Soldier, the dancer is The Dancer – they’re not people, they’re functionaries; they don’t live, they represent. Same with the other characters: each is defined by a single speech. So a hijacker tells us his reason for behaving as he does, followed by a politician telling us his reason, then a flight engineer telling us his. A wan suggestion that Wilfried is in (unrequited) love with Brigitte goes nowhere. And Pike nails a scene near the end where she questions her own motives, but it’s dropped in like a lesson from a screenwriting manual (“Give your main character a surprise twist”).
The Idi Amin scenes are deliberately (and unsettlingly) cartoonish. When the hostages are herded into the terminal on day two, he’s there to greet them in full regal array: “I am doctor Idi Amin Dada, appointed by God as your saviour, I am the hero of Africa.” Padilha is clearly winking at Donald Trump here – not his behaviour, but his ego – and again, in case you miss it, a few scenes later we see the Israeli diplomats negotiating with Amin by phone (“This will get you the Nobel Prize for peace”) while rolling their eyes at each other. Yes, all historical films must have their contemporary echoes, but this one feels hollow.
Then there’s the dance number. A half-circle of chairs is arrayed on a stage. Dancers in black suits and white shirts sit on them. Like a stadium wave, each arches his/her back and spreads open his/her jacket as if shot; one falls to the floor and slowly rises; this happens over and over, an endless violence stuck on repeat. Eventually the tempo builds – dancers rip off their jackets and throw them centre stage. With increasing frenzy, they rip off their shoes, hats, pants, shirts, until they’re standing near-naked, panting, vulnerable.
In real life and in the film, Israeli special forces arrive on day seven, guns blazing. They kill Ugandan guards and the hijackers, and the hostages go home. Padilha chooses to intercut the raid with the peak of the dance number, and while I get the message – here we go again, stuck in that repeating circle of violence – what happens in the raid itself is nigh on unintelligible. The dance is much more beautifully and lucidly cut, and days later, it’s what’s stayed with me, affecting me much more than the film it bookends. The metaphor eclipses the movie, and that’s the problem.