The sooner Jared Kushner brokers peace in the Middle East, the sooner we’ll stop being forced to suffer through an endless stream of casually entertaining, cable television-worthy movies about the region’s cyclical violence. Films like José Padila’s “7 Days in Entebbe” — a competent but highly compromised dramatization of the 1976 hijacking of Air France Flight 139 — may not be the most dire consequence of the ongoing turf war between Israel and Palestine, but they’re enough to make you wish that Trump’s beleaguered son-in-law would get to work on the negotiation process, no matter his dubious qualifications.
Actually, when you get right down to it, sending Kushner to get the job done in real life isn’t all that different from sending the director of 2014’s “Robocop” remake to do it on screen. At this point, there’s only so much left to say about the most knotted political conflict in modern history, and a mid-budget thriller that ends in a massive shootout probably isn’t an ideal vehicle to push the conversation forward. Even Spielberg had trouble with this — “Munich” might have been the best film of 2005, but 13 years later people only really talk about Eric Bana’s sweat level during that climactic sex scene.
The driving purpose of re-dramatizing this story for the first time since 1977’s “Operation Thunderbolt” is that new information about its climactic raid has been declassified in recent years, but it’s unclear what that new information might be, or why it’s worth dredging the whole thing up. Scripted by Scottish playwright Geoffrey Burke (whose only previous screenplay was for the similarly functional “’71”), “7 Days in Entebbe” begins by foregrounding its most compelling and unconventional idea.
Spicing up the obligatory deck of title cards that films like these invariably require for context — there’s this new country called Israel, and the Palestinians are super pissed at them, and now everyone is going to stop being polite and start getting real — Padilha frames the introductory text against a rapturous performance by the Batsheva Dance Company. Based on a real piece choreographed by Ohad Naharin and appropriately scored to the classic Passover jam “Echad Mi Yodea” (a fun song that simplifies an age-old struggle), this opening gambit offers a prime example of the forcefulness missing from the rest of the film, even though Padilha finds a way to bring Batsheva back.
After that, Padilha doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. The movie is hardly five minutes old by the time its four terrorists/freedom fighters make themselves known to their fellow passengers aboard the notorious flight. Pill-popping Brigitte Kuhlmann (a flinty brunette Rosamund Pike) is the first to act, tossing guns to fellow German Wilfried Böse (a peak Daniel Brühl) and their two accompanying members from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – External Operations. Böse fancies himself the leader of the pack, heading into the cockpit to muscle around the crew (fellow “Inglourious Basterds” alum Denis Ménochet plays the smart and soulful engineer who tries to reason with him).
Surveying his 200 terrified hostages — many of them Jews en route from Tel Aviv to Paris — the wild-eyed Böse insists that he’s a humanitarian, and that his beef isn’t with the Israeli people, only the Israeli government. Cut to: The highest-ranking members of the Israeli government, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (the teflon and reliably terrific Lior Ashkenazi) is huddled with Minister of Defense Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan, under constant attack from the prosthetic eyebrows that are swallowing his entire face).
Israel’s policy is to never negotiate with terrorists, but letting the hostages die would be political suicide. Meanwhile, the hijackers have troubles of their own, as the minor schisms in their respective ideologies begin to cause friction once the plane reaches its final destination at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport. Böse, desperate not to have his agenda undermined by the lingering scent of Nazism, shares Peres’ concern over the optics of how this might all play out; everyone is a hostage to something, and one plumber is worth 10 revolutionaries.
The tension basically takes care of itself, as the hijackers set a deadline, isolate the Israeli passengers, and wait to see if Rabin might respect their demands. And yet it often feels as though Burke’s script is doing everything in its power to drain out the tension, the storytelling so determined to equivocate between the various perspectives that it never develops its own point of view. Everyone ostensibly gets a chance to argue for their own integrity, and the movie will stop at nothing to establish the disconnect between civilian lives and political lusts (a side-plot featuring one of the Batsheva dancers and her IDF boyfriend is so brazenly contrived that you don’t know whether to be angry or impressed).
But the dramatic strain of trying to level the playing field only makes the film’s pro-Israeli bias — evident in everything from the opening text to the demonization of the PLO — feel perniciously covert. Even the decision to have the Israelis speak in accented English (in cabinet meetings, no less) has a way of making the Germans and Palestinians seem foreign. It doesn’t matter whose side the movie is on, only that it’s intellectually dishonest for a movie about compromise to pretend that it doesn’t have a side.
That the Palestinians are made to look so evil is especially noticeable because “7 Days in Entebbe” makes everyone else look so good. Everyone, including the passengers and the stewardesses, who are all so Hollywood beautiful that you expect them to offer the PLO their headshots instead of their passports. Pike is a convincing zealot, bristling against the sexism inherent to how the male hostages try to earn her sympathy, but weighing the character down with a chintzy romance only makes everything else about her seem chintzy as well.
The action has more backbone to it, and Padilha (also the director of the excellent “Elite Squad”) has the chops to make the climactic raid exciting even for those who know how it all goes down. But when all the dust settles, we’re left right where we started, and with nothing to show for it but a fleeting reminder that peace is impossible without negotiation. It’s a lesson that history has failed to teach us, filtered through a movie that doesn’t understand why.
“7 Days in Entebbe” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It will open in theaters on March 16th.
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