Taut with anxiety, “7 Days in Entebbe” is a powerful example of how dramatizing a well-recorded chapter of history can still generate hard-hitting suspense.
On June 27, 1976, a plane carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew members from Tel Aviv to Paris was seized by four armed hijackers — two left-wing German revolutionaries and two Palestinians. The flight eventually ended up in Uganda, where the hostages were held in a decrepit abandoned airport. Their lives became points of leverage as their armed captors’ demand that Israel free jailed Palestinian militants was rejected, and the divided Israeli government debated how to pull off a seemingly impossible commando mission to rescue them.
The film re-creates the ticking-clock crisis in tones that are serious, but not too solemn to deliver well-timed thrills. Quickly backgrounding viewers unfamiliar with the origins of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the film moves to the capture of Air France Flight 139 almost before the passengers have loosened their seat belts.
The standard villains are absent here, and typical heroes are hard to find as the story moves forward. That is because the film gives each person not only an attitude, but a character to play.
The first terrorist to begin shouting orders is Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike turned brunette), a manic, verbally abusive radical who passed weapons to her three male comrades. She waves a gun and screams threats of execution for anyone ignoring her demands.
But it’s calm, collected Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), a fellow German, who views himself as the leader of the operation. A self-styled idealist, he supports the mass kidnapping because he considers the Palestinians underdogs in the Mideast conflict. Böse sees himself not as a prejudiced anti-Semite but a principled opponent to the power-hungry Israeli government, a benevolent idealist worlds apart from Hitler and those detestable Nazis.
Their Palestinian co-conspirators have entirely different agendas, but everyone putting a gun barrel near a terrified innocent’s head claims some unique moral justification.
Like a well-tuned pendulum, the story swings from the claustrophobic confines of the imprisoned passengers to comfortable but similarly tense official conference rooms. There we see a political procedural as dovish Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, impressive as always) and hawkish Minister of Defense Shimon Peres (England’s Eddie Marsan, ditto) conduct their own battles. What should they do, what can they do, and how should they weigh the collateral damage of a failed rescue mission, both in terms of civilian lives and political setbacks?
On both sides of the confrontation, infighting spirals in chaotic directions. When the moment of truth arrives, the action unfolds with fatal urgency.
Brazilian director José Padilha orchestrates the crisis like a piece of news journalism, as if the events are occurring in real time. Padilha is experienced with fact-based cinema, creating the superb terrorist docu-thriller “Bus 174,” the vibrant semi-fictional “Elite Squad” police actioners and episodes of the reality-inspired Netflix series “Narcos.”
He pursues this gripping subject like a dramatist, anthropologist and psychiatrist. His film unflinchingly shows the desperation of each side in the standoff. Pushing aside each faction’s culturally authorized frame of reference, and the easy answers they would offer viewers, Padilha hammers home the ugly truths, compromised leadership and flawed humanity inside this very real story.
The one exception is the deliberately lunatic portrait of Uganda’s erratic President Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who elevated military dictatorship to a form of extravagant performance art. That apart, there are few one-dimensional characters here. We can’t empathize with all of them, but we gain understanding.