Operation Thunderbolt, the 1976 Israeli commandos’ mission to rescue passengers from a hijacked Air France flight diverted to Entebbe airport, Uganda, inspired three films, all made less than a year after the daring mission took place.
Now, Brazilian director, José Padilha (Elite Squad, Narcos and Bus 174) has added his take on this familiar, extraordinary story. In his retelling, he focuses on the two German hijackers, Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) — left-wing radicals associated with the Baader Meinhof group, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. To emphasise his credibility to the Palestinian terrorists, Böse, a publisher of revolutionary books, tells them that he wants to “throw bombs into the consciousness of the masses”.
The methodically paced drama unfolds using a day-by-day reconstruction narrative device with a few flashbacks and some archival footage, beginning just before the hijacking and concluding with the rescue itself. Divisions are apparent everywhere. Brigitte, the tougher and more ruthless of the two, doubts Wilfried’s abilities, although neither of them appears to be particularly up to the task.
The legacy of history hovers over them and when it comes to separating Israelis from the rest of the passengers, Böse finds the emotionally loaded task uncomfortable, stating that he is not a Nazi.
Over in Jerusalem, there is internal debate raging inside the Israeli government and a power battle between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, portrayed by Lior Ashkenazi, and Defence Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), who take opposing positions in their approach to the crisis. Heavy-handed political messaging sets Rabin up as a negotiator against Peres’s insistence on action — unfortunately Marsan’s bizarre facial make-up provides unintentional light relief during their strained verbal exchanges.
The able cast do what they can with Gregory Burke’s mediocre script, which, at times, comes across as rather didactic and clichéd, “We need to talk to our enemies,” Peres tells Rabin. There is little emotional investment in, or development of, any character and, surprisingly, a lack of attention given to the hostages themselves.
Padilha’s choice to intercut key moments of the film with a puzzling metaphor — a Batsheva dance sequence — is thrilling visually but its relevance is unclear, particularly as it focuses on the girlfriend of a minor character. That aside, its final performance creates the most exhilarating and emotive aspect of the film.
Paradoxically, while the tension-laden operation required the element of surprise to succeed, Padilha’s version lacks suspense and adds little that is unexpected. A truly remarkable story which, here — although enjoyable — does not get a particularly remarkable telling.