Sternly, one character tells another that the fight must go on, for the sake of the hostages. Just as sternly, the other character replies that if the fight must go on, then we are all hostages. The latter is being metaphorical, maybe even metaphysical, musing about a future marred by perpetual hostilities. The former is being a bit more literal: There are 246 men, women, and children held at gunpoint in Uganda who need saving.
How to resolve this breakdown in communication? You can’t, which makes 7 Days in Entebbe, a new movie adaptation of what may be history’s most audacious rescue operation, particularly vexing to watch. One moment it’s Ziv, a hardened young commando about to report for duty, bickering with his girlfriend, a peaceable dancer. The next, it’s Shimon Peres, the operation’s chief cheerleader, bickering with his quivering frenemy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. No matter who’s doing the talking, the question pondered is the same: How long must we fight?
The answer, to all but high-minded screenwriters intent on making serious movies about moral conundrums, is not too complicated: as long as there are bad guys with guns trying to kill us. In 7 Days, however, the bad guys aren’t that bad—they’re German intellectuals, which means that, periodically, they must put aside their AK-47s and debate the dialectical nature of history.
The villain-as-grad-student paradigm isn’t inherently terrible, nor is it historically inaccurate. Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, the plane’s two German kidnappers, were, by many survivors’ accounts, prone to lengthy conversations about justice and virtue and other abstractions, and there is something about the airless, dusty African terminal, with ultimatums afoot and the clock ticking down, that could’ve made for a fine piece of existential, almost abstract, theater. One can imagine an Entebbe film that, secure in the knowledge that we all know the action-packed fairy tale by now, would abandon the explosions and the gunfire for two hours of tense dialogue, a sort of Twelve Angry Men between hostages and their tormentors.
And, at times, that appears to be just the movie the actors portraying Böse and Kuhlmann—Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike—have in mind. When Kuhlmann telephones a lover back home in Germany and wearily recounts the hijacking, she seems eager to escape not just Uganda but the film itself, both of which deprive her of a role that much transcends a few angry shouts and nervous convulsions.
You can hardly blame her. Like much of Hollywood these days, 7 Days believes that a movie’s primary responsibility is to make progressive statements, not unfettered art. The message is the medium, and the message is best delivered in bursts of political speechifying. Sadly for the bien pensants, however, we unwashed masses go to the movies to be entertained, not educated, which leaves the film in a bind. Disinterested in the true depths of terror, and disdainful of the sheer kineticism of a good action sequence, it opts for something in between. The film’s climactic scene, for example, the raid on the terminal, is shot in infuriating slow-motion and cross-cut with a modern dance performance, forcing you to embrace its sophomoric war-as-metaphor theme one last, frustrating time. Whereas Chuck Norris, the hero of a previous Entebbe-inspired magnum opus, once blasted baddies with his rocket-launching dirt bike, lithe ballerinas now throw themselves on a bare stage. Catharsis is not permitted. Neither is fun.
Which is not only an artistic failing, but also a moral, and maybe even a theological, one. In any story about good grappling with evil, gunshots are often punctuation marks, vital to understanding the larger plot at hand, and talk falters not only because it doesn’t play well on film but because it fails to move the soul, a primordial reckoning that propelled people like Böse and Kuhlmann to violence in the first place. Greater films grasp this point intuitively: Just compare 7 Days to Carlos, the masterpiece by Olivier Assayas tracking the life and work of the arch-terrorist who was chummy with Böse and Kuhlmann’s revolutionary comrades. Like a latter-day Robert Bresson, Assayas is interested in the question of salvation, and he understands that his character is, too, however murderous his means. The film follows Carlos as he seeks redemption in one bloodbath after another, and we sink deeper the more he realizes that violence begets only violence, not transcendence. Word and deed go together. Deny us the former, and you’re a vulgarian; deny us the latter, and you’re a bore.
Seven Days concerns itself with neither. It interacts with the world as you’d do in a Georgetown dinner party or in the opinion pages of The New York Times, making broad and bloodless statements while glancing sideways for the approval of your peers. The movie opens with a title card that explains that while some see the hijackers as terrorists, others view them as freedom fighters. It ends with more title cards, informing us that the nice soul-searching prime minister we’ve come to admire, Rabin, was assassinated by a religious Jewish zealot who did not share his enlightened views about the futility of the fight. These bookends are not incidental; they are the film, and everything else that happens in between is just there to serve the vapid and vacuous statement that the film chooses to make.
Yes, war is terrible—those of us who’d lived through it understand that better than most. But progress won’t come from empty statements and meaningless gestures, from pretty metaphors and flightless films. It will come from work—artistic, political, spiritual—that begins by asking the difficult questions and admitting the uncomfortable truths: that evil exists, that it preys on us often, that the open heart and the clenched fist must learn to work together for both to survive. The men who risked their lives in Entebbe knew this intuitively. It’s a shame that the men who claim the right to tell their stories four decades later no longer do.
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