The word “fascist” is bandied around a lot in José Padilha’s recreation of the 1976 hijacking of Air France flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris. Two of the hijackers are German revolutionaries, and they know that they’ll be seen as fascists on a par with Nazis, for holding a planeload of Jewish people at gunpoint. But they in turn accuse the Israeli regime of being the “real” fascists, for their treatment of the Palestinians to whose cause they have rallied. And they don’t spare the F-word in relation to their own government either: “It’s the same people still in power now,” says Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl), “the same fascists!” Like any word, no matter how loaded, that is repeated too often, it soon starts to sound meaningless — an accurate reflection of the dulling effect of the curiously unthrilling “7 Days in Entebbe.”
The low-boil drama begins when Wilfried and fellow Revolutionary Cell member Brigitte (Rosamund Pike) calmly unpack several guns from their carry-on luggage and along with two Palestinians, take control of the plane. After a refueling stop in Yemen, they force the plane to Entebbe, Uganda, and bring the 250-plus hostages, including some 84 Israelis and the Air France crew (Dennis Menochet is perhaps the performance MVP as the flight engineer), into a sealed-off area of the terminal building. There, they await word from the Israeli authorities on whether they are willing, contrary to their stated policy, to negotiate the release of their citizens.
They are met by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who also agrees to a kind of go-between role in the talks. And it’s a shame that not more is made of the notorious Amin brokering negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, because it’s about as insane a notion as dogs and cats coming to the talks table and having, well, Idi Amin preside. Unfortunately, here, with only a couple of colorful scenes, Amin’s outsize personality almost comes across as comic relief, especially in comparison to the uniformly dour hijackers (make the most of the Daniel Brühl’s joke, it’s the only one you’ll get.)
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Surprisingly, the most involving dramatic strand is not with the imperiled innocent families and their gun-toting captors, but inside the chambers of government in Israel. Here, Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan in peculiar eyebrows), the wily opportunist, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (an impressive Lior Ashkenazi), the conflicted pragmatist, each try to secure the hostages’ release, but in a manner that will gain them personally the maximum political advantage. Though the film does culminate in an action scene of sorts, in the shape of the risky, but famously successful raid by Israeli commandos on the airport compound, it is the machinations between Rabin and Peres that make for the most compelling drama.
Padilha’s sole stroke of inspiration elsewhere is in the use of a remarkable piece of dance theater, performed by Batsheva Dance Company and choreographed by Ohad Naharin. Its narrative inclusion is tenuously justified by one of the dancers being the girlfriend of Ben Schnetzer’s idealistic Israeli commando (saddled with one of the scripts most eyeroll-inducing lines: “I fight so you can dance!”) But mostly, the dance piece is used as a cross-cutting, tension-building device, à la “The Godfather.” As such, it doesn’t really work: Every time we cut to the stage, with its dramatic semi-circle of dancers flinging themselves around with grace and dynamism, it’s a wrench to leave it again to go back to the stasis of the airport holding room, or the Israeli government chambers.
A distinct air of staleness permeates the whole enterprise — even the palette is brown as an old biscuit, and Rodrigo Amarante’s minimal score is so politely low in the mix that it’s hardly even there. Brühl brings his usual earnestness to a role that’s already too earnest, and a shark-eyed Pike somehow fares even worse, with a flashback love interest doing little to add color to her waxen character. She is also cursed with the film’s very worst scene where she wanders in a daze into the airport terminal, and phones her boyfriend long-distance, monologuing somnolently into a broken payphone.
After 2008’s Golden Bear-winning “Elite Squad,” its sequel “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” and the 2014 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s authoritarian policing classic, “RoboCop,” Padilha himself has been no stranger to the term “fascism” over his career. But here, he pulls his punches to an enervating degree, somewhat timorously locating the majority of the film’s actual conflict within the individual factions, as opposed to between them. So instead of any more provocative (and potentially illuminating) ideological divide, the film’s axis of sympathy runs between those who are willing to kill (or let-be-killed) for their principles, and those who are not. It’s an ingenious way of avoiding the political landmines that dot this contested territory, but it also makes it easy not to care.