Generations of Israelis have cheered the finale of Operation Thunderbolt, the 1977 Golan-Globus movie, when Israeli commandos led by Lt.-Col. Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rescue the mostly Israeli hostages held by Palestinians and Germans in a Ugandan airport in 1976.
But José Padilha’s 7 Days in Entebbe, a new film based on this incident that just had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival will annoy many in Israel with its revisionist view of the events that are often seen as one of Israel’s finest hours.
The most controversial aspect of the movie for some viewers will be the fact that it shows Yoni Netanyahu (Angel Bonanni) being killed at the beginning of the raid, rather than leading the action until dying at the last moment, as is the case in Operation Thunderbolt and as many have long believed. In recent years, accounts have come to light from fellow soldiers who were there and who said Netanyahu was killed early on. Among these is Amir Ofer, one of the first commandos to enter the airport and a technical adviser on the new film.
At a press conference, Padilha said he had done extensive research into details of the raid and had spoken to a number of commandos from the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) who carried it out, as well as to former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was one of the planners of the rescue.
“I prefer to rely on the version of people who were there rather than the version of people who were not there,” Padilha said.
The Hollywood Reporter said it had reached out to the prime minister’s office for comment on this new version when 7 Days was in production but had not received an answer.
The timing of Yoni’s death is not all that is different in this new film. Padilha and screenwriter Gregory Burke have played down Israeli heroism in favor of telling the story from several points of view, with a particular focus on the two German hijackers, Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl).
We get their backstories: She feels her mistakes led to the arrest of her mentor, Ulrike Meinhof, and she is driven by guilt and anger, while he is a weak bookseller and publisher of revolutionary books who feels nobody takes him seriously.
They are by far the most fully realized characters in the film, and are portrayed in much greater depth than the hostages, soldiers, Palestinian terrorists and Israeli government officials.
IN ADDITION to its focus on the German terrorists, the movie examines the decision-making process of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, believably weary in this role) and defense minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan, a British actor best known for playing Ray’s brother on Ray Donovan and an unlikely choice for Peres).
Rabin is portrayed as pushing for negotiations with the Palestinian hostage takers, while Peres and others in the cabinet favor the rescue operation.
Through his research, Padilha, best-known for directing the television series Narcos and the 2014 RoboCop movie, said he learned that “Even though Rabin thought the operation was doubtful, he had to approve it... It is very difficult for Israeli and Palestinian politicians to negotiate.”
One strange aspect of the film is that the characters speak in their native languages – including the Israeli hostages, who speak Hebrew – except for the Israeli government officials and IDF commandos, who all speak English with a mixture of American and Israeli accents. It is distracting to hear the hostages in the airport speaking Hebrew and then cut to Rabin and Peres arguing in English. Asked about this choice, Padilha admitted it was awkward, but said, “There is only so much that you can get away with in the studio system.” The more a movie is in any language other than English, “the less commercial” it is seen to be, he said.
In another unusual touch, although one that works well cinematically, the movie opens with and keeps cutting back to a performance of Echad Mi Yodea by the Batsheva Dance Company. That athletic, high-energy dance features dancers dressed as Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who sing, dance and eventually strip down to leotards. It is choreographed by Ohad Naharin, who is briefly a character in the film, where it appears ostensibly because one of the commandos has a girlfriend in the company, played by Zina Zinchenko, a real-life Batsheva dancer.
The dance piece was actually choreographed in the 1990s. At the end of the film, over the closing credits, Batsheva dancer Or Schraiber performs another Naharin piece, and Schraiber’s girlfriend, Iowa-born former Batsheva dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who was the subject of the award-winning documentary, Bobbi Jene, is among the dancers in the film.
Padilha said he used the dance to make a comment “in a cinematic and visual way” about the need to break free of the preconceptions that stopped the Israelis from negotiating with the terrorists.
Padilha was joined at the press conference by Bruhl, Pike, Omar Berdouni (who played one of the Palestinian terrorists), producer Kate Solomon and Jacques Lemoine, one of the Air France crew members who was taken hostage and survived. He pronounced the movie, “très bien,” and said it was faithful to his recollections of the ordeal.
7 Days in Entebbe does not yet have an Israeli release date, but it is set to open in the US on March 16.