Even now, 42 years on, the hijacking of Air France flight No. 139 remains etched in the Israeli consciousness. Two Palestinians and two Germans took control of a flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris, eventually diverting it to Uganda, where passengers were held at Entebbe airport for seven days.
It led to the famous Operation Thunderbolt — the daring mission carried out by the Israeli Defence Forces where all but four of the 106 hostages were rescued and the terrorists killed.
It is hardly surprising that such dramatic events inspired numerous books, documentaries and feature films. Three all-star movies were released within a year: Victory At Entebbe starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster; Raid on Entebbe with Charles Bronson and Peter Finch; and Operation Thunderbolt, which featured Klaus Kinski as one of the German terrorists. Now it’s the turn of José Padilha, the Brazilian-Jewish filmmaker behind the prize-winning Elite Squad.
His pulsating new movie Entebbe re-examines events. While Padilha already knew about the crisis, he’d always heard about it “from a military perspective” — the mechanics of Operation Thunderbolt. “And I’ve seen it from the point of view of the ‘Yoni’ story, which is the main point of view you get when you talk to Israelis,” he adds, referring to fallen soldier Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, older brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was killed during the raid.
When Padilha received the script, he was intrigued. It was written by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, who previously penned the script for 2014’s powerful Bafta-nominated Northern Ireland-set film ’71.
Here was a story that offered multi-perspectives —from the terrorists to the hostages to the Israeli politicians dealing with the crisis. Particular attention is paid to Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, from the left-wing German group Revolutionary Cells.This German duo is shown in stark contrast to their Palestinian partners, who in exchange for the hostages demand the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants, many of whom were held in Israel. “The Palestinians…they have lands that they thought was taken from them. So it’s visceral for them,” says Padilha. “For Böse and Brigitte it was for ideology. They were doing it for Marxism. They thought in the context of the Cold War that they were fighting the Capitalistic Empire.”
The film looks at the psychological impact of this week-long odyssey on both. Kuhlmann is shown as a pill-popping aggressor, even separating the Jewish hostages from the non-Jewish at the airport. “When you talk to the hostages, 60 per cent will tell you she was very violent. High on speed. And she was very Nazi-like, separating the Jews,” says the director. “But some hostages, 20 per cent, thought they could understand her aggressiveness was a defence mechanism, that she was losing it.”
While Kuhlmann unravels spectacularly, notably in one telephone conversation in the finale, Böse also shows cracks as his captors accuse him of being a Nazi. “Anybody who knows the German left, they hate being accused of being Nazis,” says Padilha. “The hostages got into Böse’s head. The military did something amazing, but the Israeli hostages also did something and nobody talks about that, so we thought we should.”
When it came to casting, Padilha sought out intelligent actors. “I wanted actors who had some understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I didn’t want to work with actors who knew nothing.” Playing Kuhlmann is Rosamund Pike, the British actress who was Oscar-nominated for Gone Girl (and who worked with Israeli film-maker Amos Gitai on 2004’s Promised Land). For Böse, he chose German actor Daniel Brühl.
“He’s been doing films about Marxists since [2003’s] Good Bye Lenin! He was perfect,” Padilha says.
Brühl admits to being “cautious” when the idea was first mooted. “If they wanted to do a cool Seventies action movie, I would’ve probably stepped back.” But as soon as he realised the personnel involved — the film is also produced by Kate Solomon, a former researcher who worked with Paul Greengrass on his 9/11 film United 93 — he relaxed. “I immediately felt this is in good hands,” he adds. “It’s not that often you have producers who are that engaged and so well prepared.”
For Brühl, it was a fascinating chance to explore the subject in depth. “I wanted to understand more about what my parents told me about the seventies and to portray a guy who did take that extra step; leaving the safe bourgeois environment and wanting not just to be a political activist but to become an extremist. That showed me once again the power of convictions and ideals, which was a big movement here in our society in Germany.”
The focus is also on former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then Minister of Defence Shimon Peres. “Rabin is for me a true hero,” says Padilha. “He thought a lot of people could die. And still he didn’t negotiate. He gambled with lives; he took the risk.” He points out that the biggest stumbling block was that some of pro-Palestinian militants who were in jail and part of the terrorists’ demands were imprisoned in Germany. “It was very hard to release all those terrorists, so he was running out of time.”
Padilha calls it a “meaningful” film. “There is a political constraint for Israeli politicians to negotiate with Palestinians. And there is the same constraint for Palestinians to negotiate with Israelis and why is that? Because it’s an ongoing conflict.” Entebbe is a tribute to the bravery of those involved, he adds. “For an Israeli soldier to be brave is to do what Yoni did. For an Israeli politician to be brave, it’s to do what Rabin did. The risk is in the negotiation; so much so, Rabin [who was assassinated in 1995] got killed.”
The research process was scrupulous. Padilha read the historical account Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, upon which the film is based, and met the author Professor Saul David. He then went to Israel, his first ever time there, where he met the late Yitzhak Rabin’s son, Yuval Rabin “to try to understand where Rabin was coming from”. He also met Rabin’s aide Amos Eiran. He spoke to hostages, soldiers and even flight engineer Jacques Le Moine.
Among those he talked to, Padilha solicited opinion on certain casting choices. “When I met Yuval, I asked, ‘Who should I cast to play your father?’ He said, ‘Lior Ashkenazi.’” The Israeli actor was indeed a perfect choice to play Rabin. Finding an actor to play Shimon Peres was tricky, however. “As soon as you have an Israeli actor playing Rabin, all the non-Israeli actors — even the Jewish ones — look at Peres and say, ‘What if I fail?’ So they got scared. I talked to many famous actors and they were all scared.”
Eventually, he chose British actor Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky), who delivers a terrific turn alongside Ashkenazi. He went for another British performer, Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones), to play the key role of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, who welcomes the Air France plane when it lands at Entebbe. “The only other person who could do this was Donald Trump,” jokes Padihla, “but he’s not so good looking!”
Yet, for all its authentic detail, the film has also generated controversy for the way its shed new light on Yoni’s involvement. For years, the Netanyahu family has painted Yoni to be one of the true heroes of the operation. But in Padilha’s version he is shot by a Ugandan soldier earlier in the mission. As Saul David recently stated, “It’s not a narrative that the Israeli Prime Minister is going to like at all.”
Padilha didn’t speak to the Israeli leader during the making of the film. “Benjamin Netanyahu had nothing to do with Entebbe,” he says. “He wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the cabinet. So I had nothing to learn about Entebbe from Benjamin Netanyahu.” Nor does he make any apologies for this version of events. “I had two Israeli officers, who were there with me on the set, telling me how it happened. And they both told me that’s how Yoni died.” Amir Ofer, the first soldier to enter the terminal, was sitting right by Padilha as he directed the scene.
The film has also come under criticism for the inclusion of a dance sequence, choreographed by Israeli-born Ohad Naharin. It opens the film, with Batsheva Dance Company members gradually casting off Charedi garments. “I thought it was a way of cinematically saying that unless both sides strip themselves of their orthodox ways of thinking there is not going to be an agreement,” argues Padilha. “You’ll have all the political constraints that you have when you’re negotiating.”
Seen through the depiction of a relationship between an Israeli soldier (Ben Schnetzer) and his dancer girlfriend (Zina Zinchenko), it’s one of the film’s clumsier missteps.
But in Brühl’s mind, Entebbe’s intentions are honourable. “My hope would be [to] present this to a younger audience who don’t know what happened in Entebbe.” Looking to the past is always instructive.
“You understand so much about nowadays if you trace back these chain-links in history.”
‘Entebbe’ opens on May 11.