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Non-Review Review: Entebbe

Entebbe is an ambitious, and very messy, hostage drama.

The events that took place in Entebbe Airport in Uganda during June and July 1976 are fascinating. The crisis been adapted for the screen on several occasions already. Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Dreyfuss starred in Victory at Entebbe later that same year. The following year, Irvin Kershner directed Raid on Entebbe with Charles Bronson and Yaphet Kotto. That same year, Israel produced its own take on the tale in Operation Thunderbolt, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

A Brühl-tal experience…

The events leading up to the daring recovery mission are deeply fascinating, with any number of interesting angles on the larger story. It is tempting to look at the events in terms of the tenure of General Idi Amin, who made Uganda a base of operations for these terrorists, much like Last of King of Scotland did. It is possible to look at the Israeli soldiers who trained to mount the rescue mission, knowing the dangers into which they were venturing. It might be reasonable to treat the events as a formative experience for the (then) young state of Israel.

Entebbe attempts to tell the story through all these different prisms at the same time, to offer a holistic perspective on the events that captures the surreal nature of events and the absurd stakes for all of the players caught up in this perilous game. Entebbe bites off a lot more than it can chew, never quite managing to balance the competing demands of the objects of its focus. Entebbe is an intriguing film, but one that feels fractured and unfocused.

Merc task force.

Part of the issues with Entebbe is the decision to anchor the story in the characters of Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, who provide the film with something approaching star power through the casting of Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl. Böse and Kuhlmann are notable as the two German hijackers, the characters with the least direct attachment to the crisis. They are not Palestinian, unlike their fellow hijackers. They are not Israeli, like the targets of the operation. They are not Ugandan, like their hosts.

As a result, Böse and Kuhlmann seem like the most peripheral part of the story being told, the characters who exist to emphasis the surreal nature of the crisis unfolding, having effectively organised and participated in a hijacking with no direct connection to their own individual circumstances. There is undoubtedly an interesting story to be told here, about two characters navigating the complex and confused politics of the mid-seventies that leads to a stand-off involving the politics of three countries to which they have no direct association.

He’s developing a Complex.

Indeed, the most interesting story about Böse and Kuhlmann at Entebbe Airport would seem to be the story of how they ended up there, the decisions and the complications that brought these two West German revolutionaries half-way around the world. There elements of that to Entebbe, with the film providing disjointed flashbacks of their involvement in plotting the mission and training for the hijacking. However, these small flashbacks never provide a real sense of meaningful context for these characters in this situation.

To be fair to Entebbe, the film understands the absurdity of the situation. Characters repeatedly point out the horrific context for two German terrorists threatening to murder Israeli hostages. “I am not a Nazi!” Böse insists at one point in the film, almost as much to convince himself as anybody else. Nevertheless, the film draws attention to the cultural legacy of the Holocaust. One Palestinian terrorist insists that the Israeli’s are perpetuating a cycle of violence of which they were once victims. The Israeli government is horrified when the Israeli hostages are segregated.

Flights of fancy.

Perhaps the most effective sequence in the film has a Palestinian character calling out Böse for his comfortable terrorism tourism, the idea that he has chosen to leave a political stable democratic environment in order to become a revolutionary. There is a hypocrisy in that, a cynicism, a self-deception. Böse is an academic terrorist rather than a blood-thirsty revolutionary. He seems to be searching more for a genuine experience than for any concrete cause. “We must not just read books,” he advises his colleagues. “We must become them.” The film regards this view skeptically.

However, there is not enough of an interesting hook in that basic premise to sustain two hours of suspense and drama. Every time that Entebbe cuts to Böse and Kuhlmann, it is cutting away from more intriguing and compelling drama; the horrific mental instability of Idi Amin, the drills undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces, the backroom political manoeuvring in Tel Aviv that may set the course of Israeli foreign policy for the next forty years. These are all interesting ways of approaching the crisis, but none get the room to breath or coalesce.

Who’s the Böse here?

Entebbe is very clear in what it wants to see, and gestures towards profound observations. José Padilha is not an especially subtle filmmaker, and there are repeated refrains within Entebbe that feel like they might have been lifted from one of Böse’s revolutionary texts. The most obvious, and almost obligatory, recurring theme is the idea that everybody in the film is a hostage in some form or another, that the passengers trapped in the airport are just more aware of their situation.

“If we are always at war,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin advises Shimon Peres, “then this country is a prison.” When it looks like Böse’s resolve might waiver, Kuhlmann warns him that if he is unwilling to do what is necessary “then [he is] the hostage.” Slightly more subtly, José Padilha visualises the metaphor. Characters are often framed to suggest that they are boxed in, with the camera peering through doors or corridors to create the impression that these people are trapped. One of the nicer visuals has the horns of an ornament on Amin’s desk suggest prison bars.

No Idi-a that things were so bad.

Similarly, Entebbe suggests that war and counter-terrorism are effectively theatre. This is an interesting idea, communicated through a striking visual motif. The introductory expository text is overlaid against a modern dance recital, the text fading into and out of view with the rhythm of the music. It is a nice motif, setting up a recurring theme of performance. Böse reading from a script to scare the hostages, and getting rave reviews; Idi Amin performing for various audiences; the idea of Israeli needing to make this rescue mission a show of strength.

However, as the film reaches its climax, Entebbe belabours the point. The supporting cast includes a married couple, one of whom is a dancer and one of whom is a soldier. Their stories are paralleled in an oh-so-cute manner, with her dance recital overlapping with his daring raid. Their rehearsals are contrasted, and both characters even receive what amounts to the same basic pep talk warning them that there can be no hesitation for the performance to seem genuine.

“Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every mother f$%king last one of you!”

There are clever ideas here, and some impressive visual compositions. However, Entebbe suffers from a lack of restraint, often repeating itself in order to get its point across. Coupled with the focus on Böse and Kuhlmann, this creates a sense that the more interesting aspects of the story find themselves squeezed out of the narrative. Entebbe is crammed with interesting ideas, but suffers from a great deal of difficulty in prioritising these concepts. It focuses on the least compelling aspects of the drama, suggesting a variety of more vibrant narratives on the edges.

Entebbe is an intriguing and occasionally compelling film, but one that is disjointed and uneven.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting! I think I missed this one. The first one was basically a disaster movie of the kind you see for all the big name actors. The Israeli one starred Yehoram Gaon, who, at the time, was best known as a singer(and star of the movie musical Kazablan)as Yonni Netanyahu, leader of the Israeli soldiers(he died). Sounds like this one might have been different enough to be worth seeing.

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