The movie recounts what is often called the most audacious hostage rescue mission ever staged, Israel’s 1976 “Operation Thunderbolt” in Uganda, but aims to be more than a tale of military heroism.
Instead Brazilian director Jose Padilha (“Narcos”) explores the harrowing events from multiple perspectives: that of the hijackers and their hostages, and of the Israeli leaders forced to decide whether to negotiate or fight.
Several previous movies, said Padilha, had depicted “a gigantic military feat and ignored the interaction between the hostages and their hijackers and the political aspects in Israel”.
Padilha, a previous Berlinale winner for “Elite Squad”, said he had met former hostages, flight crew and Israeli political and military veterans to get beyond the “standard military narrative”.
The battle between Israel’s then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the more hawkish defence minister Shimon Peres helps illustrate why there is still no Middle East peace, said the director.
“You see the dynamic, you realise how difficult it is for a politician in Israel to negotiate” with the enemy, Padilha said, adding that this was true on both sides of the conflict and “still true today”.
– Echoes of Holocaust –
The hijacking of a Paris-bound Air France flight from Tel Aviv was a joint plot of Palestinian militants and their far-left German backers, who saw themselves as anti-imperialist revolutionaries.
The militants — the two Germans are portrayed by Daniel Bruehl (“Good Bye, Lenin!”) and Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) — took over the flight after an Athens stop-over.
After a refuelling stop in Moamer Kadhafi’s Libya, they headed to Entebbe, Uganda, then ruled by brutal dictator Idi Amin, who is described in the film as a “lunatic” who feeds his enemies to crocodiles.
The divergent motivations of the kidnappers become evident in the film when they separate out Jewish passengers, Israelis as well as non-Israelis, in scenes that chillingly evoke the Holocaust.
Bruehl’s character Wilfried Boese, a book-seller who considers himself an anti-fascist urban guerrilla, is portrayed as increasingly troubled.
As the cracks widen, a Palestinian militant angrily tells Boese: “You are here because you hate your country. I am here because I love mine.”
– ‘Into his head’ –
The fear of a Jewish bloodbath also drives Rabin’s cabinet, where Peres puts together a plan involving 100 commandos in under-the-radar flights who launch a surprise raid using a fake presidential limousine.
On day seven, the special forces shot dead all the kidnappers and scores of Ugandan troops while rescuing all but four of the remaining 106 hostages.
The only Israeli soldier killed was unit commander Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On their way out, the Israeli forces blew up Uganda’s fleet of Soviet MiG fighters, although the film does not depict the fiery end of the operation, instead interspersing the battle scenes with a dance choreography.
The new version, based in part on testimony from flight engineer Jacques Lemoine, shows Boese deciding against massacring the Jewish passengers before he goes down in a hail of bullets.
“The hostages had got into his head,” Padilha told a press conference on the movie, which is screening out of competition, adding that this had helped to “save their own lives”.
Asked whether he was ready for a “backlash” against showing “terrorists with a conscience”, the director said that, although they do “terrible, inexcusable things… terrorists are human beings”.