Friday, March 16, 2018

7 Days at Entebbe: An offensive affront to history

7 Days at Entebbe (2018) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

I cannot recall ever having endured such an egregious example of directorial miscalculation.

This isn’t a movie; it’s a jaw-droppingly clumsy blend of cinema, experimental theater and performance art, orchestrated by director José Padilha in a manner that undercuts the drama at every turn. Such a mash-up might be right at home in an opulent fantasy akin to La La Land or The Greatest Showman, but definitely not for a supposedly fact-based re-telling of the 1976 hostage crisis that took place from June 27 through July 4 at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.

Gung-ho German "revolutionaries" Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann
(Rosamund Pike) repeatedly, endlessly discuss what they'll eventually have to do with
the terrified hostages awaiting their fate at Uganda's Entebbe Airport.
This should be a taut, edge-of-the-seat nail-biter akin to Paul Greengrass’ United 93, but with the far more triumphant outcome that deservedly retains its reputation as the most audacious rescue mission in modern history. But this film’s script — Gregory Burke, hide your head in shame — is undercut constantly by laughably melodramatic dialog, tedious talking-heads debates, and an insipid boyfriend/girlfriend sidebar.

But that’s not the worst. The film opens, closes and is frequently interrupted — even during the climax! — by rehearsals for Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s 1990 work, Echad Mi Yodea, presented by the Batsheva Dance Company. It’s impossible to overstate the degree to which this ruins the tension, robs the suspense, and pulls us completely out of the narrative.

It’s akin to having the members of the dance troupe Stomp! commandeer the stage in the middle of the famous battlefield speech from Henry V (not that Burke is fit to sharpen Shakespeare’s quills).

Events begin when an Air France passenger plane is hijacked by four terrorists: two members of the so-called Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, allied with two sympathetic German revolutionaries. We never get much of a bead on the Palestinians, instead spending far too much time with the Germans: Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike).

At first blush, they seem hard-hearted and dedicated to the task at hand. But once the plane is diverted to Entebbe, and Böse and Kuhlmann are placed in charge of keeping the hostage passengers compliant, cracks begin to emerge. They almost become cartoon terrorists: wannabe revolutionaries joining the cause because it’s “cool.”

Brühl’s Böse is a former bookseller: too quick to yield to compassion; too willing to identify with the hostages; too obviously unfamiliar with the gun he wields. “I want to throw bombs into the consciousness of the masses!” he proclaims, trying to sound tough when challenged by one of his Palestinian colleagues. Not even Brühl can sell such a creaky line, and his “terrorist with a heart of gold” aura is simply offensive.

Pike’s Kuhlmann talks a better game, but the actress shades the role in a way that suggests she merely wishes to be perceived as tough, for the sake of appearances, despite a marshmallow center she struggles so hard to conceal (and which is revealed late in the story, when she makes a phone call home to her lover).

This film’s effort to “soften” these two — in the interest of PC fairness? — goes far beyond artistic license; it’s reprehensible. The actual Kuhlmann is known to have been a virulent anti-Semite who pistol-whipped passengers, terrorized Jewish hostages and deservedly earned the epithet of “Nazi,” with which she quickly was tagged.

That aside, the constant philosophical discussions between Böse and Kuhlmann wear very thin ... as do the equally protracted arguments taking place in Israel, between Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Gen. Motta Gur (Mark Ivanir), who favor a rescue operation; and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi), who worries about the consequences of failure.

The tone simply isn’t right, in either case. We need look only to the recent Darkest Hour, to see how true tension can be developed during such behind-the-scenes dithering, while a crisis unfolds in the world outside. Padilha, in marked contrast, gives this film’s numerous discussions no more weight than one would find in a bland procedural chat prior to a high school Model United Nations debate.

But wait: It gets worse. The intimate exchanges between one Israeli special-ops soldier (Ben Schnetzer) and his dancer girlfriend (Zina Zinchenko), as he waits to hear whether the rescue mission will be a go, are simply inane. She, apparently intended to represent the pacifist, try-the-bargaining-table-approach that Rabin also favors, doesn’t want him to go.

“Why does it have to be you?” she repeatedly whines.

“I fight so you can dance,” he answers, with clipped practicality.

To which she replies, “What if I stop dancing?”

If that final question was intended to score a rational philosophical point, it escaped me. As did the reason for spending so much pointless screen time with these two.

(It should be noted that Zinchenko is one of the dancers whose antics repeatedly interrupt this film ... which is a neat trick, given that the dance in question wouldn’t be created for another 14 years. That, at least, can be chalked up as “forgivable” artistic license.)

The time wasted with this soldier and his dancer girlfriend, and Böse and Kuhlmann, is all the more frustrating because of the far more intriguing sidebar characters who demand more attention. Denis Ménochet delivers a terrific performance as Air France flight engineer Jacques Le Moine. He’s persuasive at every turn, particularly when he baits Böse during a brief chat: the one and only time that Burke’s dialog crackles with energy and ironic tension.

Nonso Anozie is appropriately scary as Idi Amin, who helps the terrorists for his own peculiar reasons. While not painted as the strutting buffoon we’ve seen in earlier depictions, Anozie nonetheless makes him an unpredictably volatile narcissist whose involvement in this crisis adds weight to Rabin’s uncertainty, back in Israel.

Anozie’s memorable performance notwithstanding, it also should be noted that this film minimizes — hell, completely evades — the actual Amin’s sociopathic brutality.

Angel Bonanni displays the necessary grim resolve as Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, placed in charge of the ground assault at Entebbe Airport. If that last name looks familiar, it should; he’s the older brother of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

Trudy Weiss also stands out as an elderly passenger — with a tell-tale tattoo on her arm — who panics and is “talked down” by Böse, during one of his kinder moments. (As if.) Although not named in the film, the credits identify her character as Dora Bloch, which is another of this script’s deplorable departures from reality; the actual Bloch’s descendants will be incensed by what happens here.

Older viewers may recall the dueling, star-studded American TV films that emerged almost immediately after this hostage crisis and its stunning resolution. ABC’s Victory at Entebbe struck first, with a cast that included Anthony Hopkins (Rabin), Burt Lancaster (Peres), Richard Dreyfuss (Yoni Netanyahu) and Kirk Douglas (the fictitious Hershel Vilnofsky). NBC’s rival Raid on Entebbe featured Peter Finch (Rabin), Charles Bronson (commando leader Dan Shomron) and Yaphet Kotto (Amin).

Israel responded with 1977’s Operation Thunderbolt, which featured Klaus Kinski (Böse) and Sybil Danning (a renamed Kulhmann) and an extensive Israeli cast. It offers detailed authenticity lacking in both American productions, which lean toward superficial Hollywood bombast ... but all three are far more suspensefully entertaining than this ludicrously misguided new version from Padilha and Burke.

That’s pretty sad, when an attempt at “serious filmmaking” pales alongside crowd-pleasing Tinseltown fluff.

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