Review: ‘7 Days in Entebbe’ Revisits a Notorious Hijacking

Posted March 15, 2018 4:05 p.m. EDT

On July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos stormed a terminal at Entebbe airport in Uganda, where passengers from a hijacked Air France jet were being held hostage by terrorists affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The mission leader was Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of Israel’s current prime minister.

Within a year, no fewer than three movies about the raid were released, two of them on U.S. television networks. The aggregate cast of those projects is a virtual encyclopedia of ‘70s celebrity, a startling compendium of has-beens and up-and-comers. In “Raid on Entebbe,” Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, was played by Peter Finch, and the Ugandan leader, Idi Amin Dada, was played by Yaphet Kotto. If you preferred Burt Lancaster as Shimon Peres (Israel’s defense minister at the time of the incident) along with Linda Blair, Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor, you could opt for “Victory at Entebbe.” “Operation Thunderbolt,” with a mostly Israeli cast, had Klaus Kinski as one of the hijackers.

José Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe,” a reasonably efficient action movie, is thus both an update and a throwback. It features an international ensemble of well-known actors playing real historical figures, and tries to balance geopolitical sobriety with suspense-thriller sensationalism.

Padilha, the Brazilian director of the “Elite Squad” movies, the “RoboCop” reboot and the superb documentary “Bus 174,” balances some of the pomp and stiffness of those old made-for-TV extravaganzas with the lean, politically nuanced objectivity of recent films about ‘70s terrorism. There have been a lot of those, from different countries and perspectives — “Munich,” “Carlos,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex” — and “7 Days in Entebbe” joins their company without adding much to the genre.

The story proceeds, day by day, from right before the hijacking to the aftermath of the rescue. Parallel stories unfold, each showing the tensions and divisions within one of the sides. On the plane and in the terminal — and in a few flashbacks — some of the militants air their doubts and debate tactics and ideology. The focus is not on the Palestinians but on Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike), German leftists associated with the Baader-Meinhof group and drawn to the Palestinian cause. Wilfried experiences some qualms about the implications of being a German holding Jews at gunpoint, while Brigitte gobbles pills and maintains an air of steely ruthlessness.

Meanwhile, Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) are engaged in a complicated battle of wills. Peres, portrayed as an unsentimental hard-liner — an interesting contrast to his later dovish reputation — pushes the prime minister, a more emotional and indecisive man, to approve a risky military response. Rabin, worried about the safety of the hostages and his own political future, broaches the previously taboo idea of negotiating with terrorists.

As the decisive moment draws near, Padilha uses a dance performance — by a company that includes the girlfriend of an Israeli soldier — to amplify the suspense and vary the film’s visual texture. It’s a halfway-effective conceit, showcasing his skill at pacing and crosscutting and relieving some of the claustrophobia of the tense indoor scenes in Entebbe and Tel Aviv. But the choreography also emphasizes the shallowness of the film, which gestures toward relevance without finding a coherent historical or political point of view.

What should unfold like an unsettling chapter in a long, tragic story — or a tale of cruelty and heroism — feels more like an old TV show. Everybody is going through the motions.

‘7 Days in Entebbe’

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.