Sometimes it’s good when a filmmaker has a Big Idea. For example, in The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola’s notion of cutting back and forth between a community-savvy young Vito Corleone and an increasingly isolated, aging Michael Corleone was an inspired way of illuminating first the promise and then the peril of building a family business in America. And sometimes Big Ideas are not so good. The one that shapes José Padilha’s 7 Days in Entebbe is a lulu of the other kind. It’s so bad it could be an act of deliberate sabotage, the artistic version of the 1976 German-Palestinian hijacking of the Air France plane from Tel Aviv to Paris that the movie purports to dramatize. It muddles what might have been a fascinating alternate — i.e., downbeat — take on one of Israel’s most-acclaimed military operations.
The Big Idea is to cross-cut between a percussive, spasmodic Pina Bausch–like dance number in which a red-haired women (Andrea Deck) collapses repeatedly as her fellow dancers jump in and out of chairs while disrobing and the Israeli commando rescue of Israeli hostages held at a Uganda airport. The red-haired woman is having difficulty with the number and strongly considers giving up dancing. She’s also married to a young Israeli soldier, to whom she conveys, in between impressive stretching exercises, that she’s not happy with what he’s doing either. Dance interludes are spaced intermittently through the movie until the climax, when it’s back and forth, back and forth. What is Padilha trying to demonstrate? I confess I don’t entirely know, which is one of the problems. I have theories based on the rest of the movie.
In Gregory Burke’s screenplay, the hijacking is initiated by two German left-wing radicals, Brigitte (Rosamund Pike) and Wilfried (Daniel Brühl), with ties to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Brigitte blames herself for the imprisonment — and recent suspicious death — of Ulrike Meinhof, and she and Wilfried hatch their hijacking plan both to free their remaining comrades (who would be traded, they believe, for hostages) and to make a statement to the world that, vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the Zionists have replaced the Nazis as the world’s most prominent Fascist state. But once the plane is commandeered (with relatively little violence), Wilfried has sad second thoughts. “Germans killing Jews,” he says to Brigitte. “Have you thought of that?” Apparently he only just has. Later, in the Entebbe airport, where the nut-bird dictator Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie) is in no hurry to help the Israelis, Wilfried calms a female hostage with a concentration camp tattoos and becomes even sadder. It falls to Brigitte to remind Wilfried why they devised the hijacking — but even she is plainly losing heart. Face it, they’re nice people. By then, however, the Palestinians have taken over the operation and seem positively eager to separate out and slaughter the Jews.
The other section of the movie (aside from the big dance) unfolds in the Israeli cabinet, where the pensive, essentially peaceable Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) resists the military operation proposed by Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan). The argument put forth by Peres is that Israelis don’t negotiate, period, full stop. Marsan, however, is lighted like a satanic gnome and wouldn’t look wrong stroking Blofeld’s cat, while Ashkenazi is tall and handsome and is apt to stare forlornly into the distance, as if envisioning the long-term consequences of Peres’s plan. We know, of course, that he will yield, at which point we’re ready — I was, anyway — for some hostage rescuing and terrorist killing, if for no other reason than to break the monotony. (Those seven days are marked by large red titles, and they go by slowly.) But don’t expect suspense or clarity when the team hits the ground in Entebbe. You can’t follow what the Israelis are doing with all that dancing.
7 Days in Entebbe is absorbing enough, and Brühl manages to conjure up some pathos despite the obviousness of his lines. Pike, I’m afraid, has dark hair and glasses that make her resemble Keri Russell in her most frequent disguise in the TV series The Americans, and the comparison doesn’t do Pike any favors. Russell can express two or three conflicting emotions at once, all while following her character’s Soviet training. Pike isn’t in the same league. She brings off a long monologue in which she stares into nothingness, her eyes watering, but there’s something stiff about her. She’s not fluid. She freezes and holds her position.
What made me sad is that the Brazilian-born Padhila made one of the great documentaries of 1990s, Bus 174, in a which a disturbed young man took a busload of people hostage and the government and police response was tragically shortsighted. He’s after the same thing here — the idea that a “successful” military operation could have, in the long run, ruinous consequences. The dance is meant to gum up our rah-rah responses to the Israeli military team’s shooting and killing and it certainly does, but in ways that make us jeer the movie instead of take its message to heart. It’s killingly dumb.