A risk? Of course. But a calculated one, born from hard arithmetic, the weight of bone and blood. For the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, June 27, 1976, was simply a game of numbers.
The number of passengers—many of them Israeli citizens—aboard Air France Flight 139, from Tel Aviv to Paris by way of Athens.
The number of terrorists aboard that flight, including leftist German radicals Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann. They draw their weapons in the air and demand a change of course—first to Libya to refuel, then on to Entebbe, Uganda, where strongman Idi Amin awaits them.
The number of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian prisoners the Popular Front wants freed, mostly from Israeli prisons. If they’re released, the terrorists say, the hostages will go free as well, unharmed.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” Böse says. “we are humanitarians.”
Böse means what he says. He may be radical, but he’s no killer. He’s a bookseller. And even though Israel holds to a strict policy of never negotiating with terrorists, these terrorists figure they’ll have to make an exception this time. There’s simply no way Israel can attempt a rescue. Not in Uganda, not 2,200 miles from Tel Aviv. Amin believes in the Palestinian cause … but even if he didn’t, the dictator hates Israel and the rest of the Western world so much that he’d never give the terrorists up.
No matter how you add those numbers, Israel’s in the red. Blood red, if the country refuses to talk. And it’s only a matter of numbers—the number of hours—before Israel must accept defeat.
But as those hours drag into days, and as the terrorists’ self-imposed deadline for Israeli compliance edges ever closer, Böse and Kuhlmann begin to see their frightened hostages as something else, something other. Those people on the other end of their gun barrels live and breathe and cry and sing. And so, in truth, do the terrorists themselves. Turns out, bargaining one set of lives for another isn’t a matter of numbers at all, but of heart and will, where humanity and monstrosity fight nail to nail, tooth to tooth.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israeli leaders look at another batch of numbers: How many soldiers will be needed to rescue those hostages? And how many can they reasonably save? How much time do they have left?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
7 Days in Entebbe dramatizes real events—events that culminated in one of the most daring, most successful rescue operations in history. And while the politics surrounding Israeli-Palestinian relations are inherently complex, and while the operation itself led to the death of many—terrorists, soldiers and hostages—we can indeed point to plenty of heroes, both obvious and understated.
Perhaps my favorite hero here is a man named Jacques Le Moine, an Air France engineer who quietly does his job and goes quite a bit above it, even sometimes in the face of violence. But the engineer’s simple, do-good brand of heroism isn’t the only sort we see here. The plane’s captain tells the crew that, even as the hijackers release non-Israeli hostages (which means the pilots themselves would be free to go), they’re honor-bound to stay ’til the end, even if it ends in their deaths. A nun tries (unsuccessfully) to take the place of an Israeli hostage, willing to substitute her life for one of theirs.
The movie points us to the Israeli strike force assigned to the mission as they train, and they accept that not all of them will be coming home alive. It points to Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli’s prime minister at the time, and applauds him for weighing a dizzying number of factors as he tries to determine the right course of action. It watches as Rabin steps out to face a group of angry, distraught citizens—family members of those held hostage, who understandably want to get their loved ones back at any cost.
But 7 Days humanizes the terrorists as well. Indeed, Böse and Kuhlmann are the movie’s surprisingly complex central players here. Even though they’re clearly the villains, we’re given a window into their underlying motivations. We see the struggle in their own souls (particularly that of Böse) as their leftist idealism runs smack into the reality of how they’re trying to achieve their ends. And when they reach the end of those ends—when they have a chance to carry out their threats or do something better with the moments that remain to them—they choose to protect innocent lives. Not end them.
The events of 7 Days in Entebbe have their roots in the creation of modern Israel. The movie reminds us that the United Nations in 1947 reconstituted the Jewish state in the region that had been its historical, biblically ordained homeland … but at the expense of the predominantly Muslim Palestinians who had been living there. The Palestinian terrorist organization at the heart of the hijacking, obviously, takes issue with that decision.
But there’s another religious factor in play: The fact that Böse and Kuhlmann are both German. And while they’re not Nazis, their involvement brings with it the spectre of Nazi Germany’s attempted extermination of the Jewish people (barely 30 years in the rearview mirror by 1976).
As such, Judaism is central to the movie. It’s of explicit concern to the Palestinian terrorists, who separate Jews and Israeli citizens from the rest of the passengers. (Eventually, nearly everyone but Jews and Israeli citizens is allowed to leave.) One man is beaten because he’s suspected of being a Jewish spy, even though he denies being Jewish at all. Another man removes the Star of David hanging around his neck, worried about being singled out. We see a rabbi or two among the captives and hear Jewish songs sung. Someone who bears a tattoo from a concentration camp seems to pray. In Israel, the country’s flag is often seen—one that obviously features the Star of David as well.
The movie does not dwell on the religion of the terrorists. (While it’d be a logical presumption that most Palestinian hijackers are Muslims, it’s important to note that a sizeable minority of Palestinians, then and now, identify as Christian. The religious affiliation of the two Germans is never referenced at all.) Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, a Muslim, greets the hostages as a representative of “God almighty” and adds that he’s their “savior.” Several nuns are among the captives: As mentioned, when the non-Israeli passengers are released, one nun offers to stay behind and take the place of a still-captive Jew.
Before the events of Entebbe, Kuhlmann was apparently in a relationship with a fellow revolutionary whom she called Juan Pablo. The two kiss. After she and her fellow terrorists hijack the plane, one of the passengers tells her that one of her blouse buttons is undone, and she’s exposing a bit of her bosom. (We see a bit of either bra or skin.) She hastily buttons it.
The rescue operation is not bloodless. We see several people die from gunshot wounds, crumpling to the ground. (These deaths aren’t particularly gory, but we do see some blood here and there, along with lifeless corpses.) Gunfire is seen and heard. In a slide at the end of the movie, we’re told that all seven hijackers were killed, along with four hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers.
A man is brutally beaten, almost to the point of death. His face is bruised and bloodstained, and we see his assailants kick him repeatedly. People can hear his cries and groans through the walls.
In the lead-up to Entebbe’s seventh day, we see both soldiers and terrorists train for their respective missions. Terrorists brandish, point and sometimes shoot guns. Böse is reprimanded by a fellow terrorist for leaving his automatic weapon leaning against a wall, where a captive could’ve snagged it. Kuhlmann sees the picture of a fellow revolutionary in a newspaper clipping—someone who apparently hanged herself in prison. (We see her lifeless body with a noose still around her neck.) She insists that her friend never would’ve killed herself, suggesting that she was probably murdered by her captors.
One f-word and two s-words, along with one use each of “d–n” and “h—.”
Kuhlmann swallows several pills during the course of her time in Entebbe, likely stimulants. Böse warns her about overdoing it, wondering how long it’s been since she slept (given the chemicals coursing through her body). He eventually knocks the pill vial out of her hand, sending tablets scattering. Kuhlmann frantically tries to pick them up, and Böse eventually helps her—picking up a pill and forcing it into Kuhlmann’s mouth. The medication (if that’s what it is) may not do good things to her mental stability … although there’s a possibility that it’s actually an anti-psychotic medication and she’s not taking enough. Regardless, Kuhlmann eventually wanders over to the new Entebbe terminal (filled with actual passengers and personnel) and talks to her lover, Juan Pablo, on a phone that’s actually not connected.
Rabin and another government official have what appears to be a glass of whiskey together.
A passenger lies about being pregnant (and feigning signs of a miscarriage) to escape the hostage situation. A girl aboard a hijacked plane needs to urinate really badly. (Kuhlmann eventually allows her to use the restroom.) Terrorists accuse Israel of being a fascist, racist, Zionist state—the true heir to Nazism.
Plane engineer Jacques Le Moine climbs to the roof of the old Entebbe terminal (where the hostages are being kept) to try to fix the plumbing. He runs into Böse, and asks him if he knows how badly this whole hijacking thing looks to the rest of the world.
“I know how this looks,” Böse says, “but it’s not reality.” Böse talks about the plight of the Palestinian people, the “fascist” Israeli government, his desire simply to help those who’re longing for freedom and dignity.
“Running water makes you free,” Jaques says, as he fixes the pipes for the folks downstairs. “One plummer is worth 10 revolutionaries.” He adds that, as an engineer, he’s trained to make things. And that makes one engineer worth 50 revolutionaries, he says.
Jacques’ point is both powerful and beautiful: If you see a wrong that needs righted and you want to really make a difference, help people. Don’t kidnap them. Don’t threaten to kill them.
While the movie’s heroes are Israeli and its villains are the terrorists, 7 Days in Entebbe doesn’t really take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian divide. It’s not much concerned with placing blame. But it does insist the only way forward is the engineer’s way: Making things, building things, looking forward to creating something better … not the revolutionary’s strategy of tearing things down. If you don’t try to find peace, the movie suggests, the war and conflict will never stop. It takes care to mention that Tel Aviv’s two most powerful figures during this crisis—Rabin and Shimon Peres—both committed themselves to the peace process.
For someone like me, who was only dimly aware of this historical incident, 7 Days in Entebbe is a fascinating and, to my eyes, fair dramatization of that agonizingly long week—allowing the event’s heroes to be heroes without wholly demonizing its villains. And while this is certainly a movie for (and of most interest to) adults, it’s gratifying to see the filmmakers stay well within the confines of a PG-13 film.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.